It must have been at least by August I realized the Cleveland Indians had a pretty good team. Nothing was certain at that point, and they had only one starting pitcher with a very good record (one of the ways I judge), but they were leading their division. In September they went on a winning streak which locked up a place in the playoffs, but at that point they’d also lost two of their starting pitchers, so along with most commentators, I didn’t expect they’d be able to get far in the post-season.
I missed their first series, with Boston, which they swept. I began watching their second series, with Toronto, in which they lost only one game. Then came the World Series, and I was really fixated on what was happening.
Especially Corey Kluber, Cleveland’s best starting pitcher. He wasn’t being perfect in the post-season, but very nearly so. His stuff and control were dazzling the Cubs, freezing them at the plate and causing them to miss when they did swing. Kluber showed no emotion on the mound, he only pitched, and shut the Cubs down.
The problem was that the other two Cleveland starters didn’t have quite his stature. Trevor Bauer started the second game of the Series, ran into trouble, and had to be relieved pretty early. The Indians only lost 2-1, though. In the third game Josh Timlin started and pitched well for five innings, getting the win. What counter-balanced the weakness of the starting pitching was the bullpen. Andrew Miller was coming in and shutting everyone down in the middle innings the way Mariano Rivera did in the 1996 World Series to get the game to the closer, John Wetteland for the Yankees, now Cody Allen for the Indians.
Over the first four games everything went almost perfectly for the Indians. They weren’t scoring a lot of runs, but enough (with the exception of game 2). Timlin pitched well in the third game, Kluber only gave up one run the fourth, and the Indians were in a great position. With a little luck they could wrap up the Series in Chicago.
They didn’t get that luck. Bauer started the fifth game, and pitched well until the fourth, when he gave up three runs, giving up more well-hit balls than I’d seen together in the rest of the Series. But that was it. They weren’t able to put hits together again, and the Indians came up only one run short. Chicago had to pitch Aroldis Chapman for more than two innings to save the game (only his first appearance in the Series, which shows how dominating Cleveland had been until then). I thought they’d be okay when they got to Cleveland again.
The Cubs were loaded with talent this year, having been built to win a World Series for the past several years by Theo Epstein, the general manager who had contributed to the Boston Red Sox finally winning a World Series after 86 years. They had more good hitters and a deeper pitching staff. They must have been shocked that the Indians played (and especially pitched) so much better than they did. But in the fifth game they began to adjust to the challenge.
Their pitching hadn’t been bad, just not quite as good as that of the Indians. Now they started to hit the ball well too. Bauer started well until the third, when he gave up three runs. In the next inning Cleveland pitching gave up a grand slam, and the game was effectively over.
Kluber started the seventh game, but wasn’t as untouchable as he’d been his previous two starts. It was his second start on short rest, his thirds start within nine days. He was probably tired, and the Cubs were getting familiar with him. He gave up a lead-off home run, and four runs in less than five innings. Relievers gave up two more runs, and the Indians trailed by three.
Jon Lester, the starting pitcher who had won 19 games in the regular season to lead the Cubs staff, entered the game in the fifth, and gave up two runs with the help of errors and a wild pitch. The Indians were behind, but still in the game.
Aroldis Chapman, the relief pitcher acquired from the Yankees, routinely throws at better than 100 miles an hour, then gave up three runs after relieving Lester, the two tying runs on a home run. He had pitched more than he was used to, as Cubs manager Joe Madden tried to nail the win down.
Andrew Miller, who had been untouchable in the first few games of the Series, pitched again in the middle of the game for Cleveland, and was touchable this time, like Kluber. Cody Allen, the Indians closer came in early this time, and struggled too. It somehow wasn’t surprising when the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the ninth. The Indians got one back in the last of the inning, but it wasn’t enough.
Only Indians fans could be disappointed with this Series, with their team not being quite good enough. Aside from that, it was as competitive a Series as anyone could want. Indians fans had to be thrilled with how great their team could be in stifling the Cubs in the first five games, and disappointed only that they couldn’t sustain that greatness in the last two games.
Cubs fans must have been terrified they were going to lose again, and thrilled that they didn’t, and that the Indians couldn’t quite come back all the way.
One of the fascinating things about the Series was that these were the two teams (excluding expansion teams who have never won a World Series) who had gone longest without a Series win. Long streaks of that sort have been broken early in this century: the Red Sox after a streak of 86 years, the White Sox after a streak of 88, and finally the Cubs after 108. What took them so long? One sportswriter suggested that the Red Sox hadn’t won because of lack of pitching. Very likely that’s a good explanation for the rest too: offense is important, but pitching and defense are the foundations that win championships. Both teams this year had both (though both made defensive mistakes in the Series), and for Cleveland in particular offense was secondary.
Indians fans were disappointed, of course, but they had one consolation: the Cleveland Cavaliers had broken the city’s losing streak for professional sports championships earlier this year, so the Indians getting this close was gravy. With a little luck, they may get even closer next year.