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The Cubs Beat the Indians at Their Own Game

Cleveland got to the brink of a World Series title by scoring runs early, running the bases like their feet were on fire, and riding their superstar reliever. Chicago stayed alive by doing the same thing.

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Getty Images

The Indians finally blew a lead. In front of 41,711 Cubs fans screaming with the ferocity that only the image of victory-or-death can create, José Ramirez hit a solo home run into the wind off Jon Lester to put Cleveland up 1–0 in the second inning Sunday. Since the Indians have protected leads so diligently this postseason, and as Trevor Bauer seemed to have both his stuff and his command for the first time this October, it looked like the Cubs would find themselves booking golf outings faster than you can say “Andrew Miller is warming up in the bullpen.”

Then Chicago struck back for three runs off Bauer in the fourth and held on to win, 3–2, and send the World Series back to Cleveland. And while Indians manager Terry Francona arguably left Bauer in too long, Joe Maddon’s Cubs stole his counterpart’s playbook for Game 5: Hit the opposing starter, run the bases aggressively, and extract every possible out from your best reliever.

The no. 3 pick in the 2011 draft, Bauer has been somewhat disappointing since his debut in 2012 because of his inability to put the whole package together. He’ll lose either his stuff or his command at some point, and then go to pieces. This year, Bauer had the 18th-highest BB/9 ratio in baseball among qualified starters, which is a good year for him. In 2015 he led all qualified starters in BB/9, and though he finished nine innings short of qualifying in 2014, if he had qualified, his walk rate would’ve been the ninth-highest in baseball. He’s also posted a game score of 30 or lower in 13 of his 92 career starts, including a 2.2-inning, eight-run debacle against the Twins in August. But through three innings, Bauer was electric. Locating his fastball and curveball perfectly, he struck out five Cubs the first time through the order — four of them went down looking, and Javy Báez swung at a curveball in the dirt because he’s incapable of taking a pitch.

In his second time up against Bauer, Kris Bryant tied the game with a leadoff home run in the fourth. Then Anthony Rizzo hit the next pitch to the cutout in straightaway right field — a few feet toward center and it would’ve gone out too. But even as Miller was doing towel drills in the bullpen, it took three more singles, the second of which scored Rizzo, before pitching coach Mickey Callaway even visited the mound. Bauer finished the inning, but not before David Ross, perhaps in his last professional plate appearance, drove home Ben Zobrist with a sacrifice fly to make it 3–1.

Like the Indians had numerous times before, the Cubs held on to that slim lead for dear life. Francisco Lindor drove in a run on a sixth-inning single that a diving Dexter Fowler barely corralled. Had Fowler not trapped the ball, it could have rolled all the way to the wall and allowed the speedy Lindor to score. Instead, Lindor snuffed out the rally when he was caught trying to steal.

The next inning, Mike Napoli singled to lead off against Carl Edwards Jr., then advanced on a passed ball. Soon after, Maddon channeled Francona again and called for a dominant left-handed reliever who’d been acquired at an outrageous price: Aroldis Chapman.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The timing was curious. Chapman had never gone for eight outs in his career, and the first two hitters he faced were Ramirez, a switch hitter, and Brandon Guyer, a righty who kills lefties and might have been worse off against Edwards. (Sure enough, Chapman hit Guyer with the first pitch.) But he worked out of it. Compared to Saturday, when Vince Vaughn led the crowd in a funereal rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” after the Indians had blown the game open, Game 5 saw Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder pay tribute to Ross, then let the crowd do the lion’s share of the singing — and they were in much better voice with the lead.

In the eighth, Rajai Davis — who reached only because Chapman had failed to cover first base on a hard grounder to Rizzo — occupied Chapman’s attention entirely. Between three pickoff attempts, numerous step-offs, and a mound conference, Chapman took more than eight minutes to deliver six pitches to Jason Kipnis, whom he almost walked. Davis stole second with Kipnis at the plate, then took third on the first pitch to Lindor, but Lindor couldn’t drive him home.

Despite those bumps, Maddon let Chapman bat with Jason Heyward in scoring position in the bottom of the eighth. Not only did Maddon not call on Kyle Schwarber, he didn’t even get anyone up in the bullpen. And by minimizing his weaker pitchers’ exposure, Maddon squeezed out a season-saving win by getting 26 of 27 outs from his two best. Miller, meanwhile, never pitched, and Allen entered the game with the Indians already trailing in the seventh.

Davis, whose 43 steals led the American League and helped the Indians do the same as a team, became the first person to steal three bases in a World Series game since Melvin Upton Jr. pulled off the trick in 2008. But even as Davis menaced Chapman on the basepaths, the Cubs went 4-for-4 in stolen bases themselves. Bryant stole second in the fifth, forcing an errant throw that allowed him to reach third; Fowler milked a seventh-inning hit-by-pitch (enticing Kipnis to stray farther from the bag and complicating his tag on the throw); and Heyward stole second and third in the eighth. The Cubs, known far more for their power than their speed, put pressure on Cleveland’s defense all night.

By the time Chapman set the Indians down in order in the ninth, the crowd was once again literally shaking Wrigley Field’s ancient foundations, and when the Cubs’ first home World Series win since 1945 was in the bag, they cheered and sang in place for almost 10 minutes before you could start to see gaps in the crowd.

Tight as the margins were in Game 5, the Cubs found the urgency that they had lacked the night before, and were rewarded with the win most thought they’d have bagged by now. Now they need to do it twice more.