The story has been the hunger. This has not been the most artistic of World Series. Game 1 had the electricity of Opening Day. Game 3 was a minor classic, an old-fashioned 1-0 pitching duel with new-fashioned pitcher usage. Game 5 was tense and suspenseful and it came down to a pitching cyborg throwing 102 mph and overmatched hitters doing all they could to stay alive at the plate.
But all in all, this once-in-a-century World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians has not been notable for the baseball. It has been notable for the intense desperation. Players and teams obviously want to win the World Series every year. This year, though, absurd cliché or not, it feels like they want to win just a little more.
Take Game 6, one the Chicago Cubs grabbed in the first inning and never surrendered. Chicago led the game 3-0 after a bizarre first inning where Cleveland center fielder Tyler Naquin and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall both avoided a somewhat routine fly ball. Naquin, a rookie, seemed entirely spooked one night after Halloween — all night he ran around aimlessly, like someone only vaguely familiar with the duties of center field. He perfectly demonstrated the anxiety that crackles all around this series.
Two innings later, it was 7-0. The key blow came after Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin was pulled — he had been valiant all of October but on three days rest and with marginal stuff to begin with, his pitches stopped fooling anybody — and Dan Otero came in for relief. He faced Chicago’s Addison Russell, a 22-year-old prodigy of a shortstop with the perfect Cubs name. Russell is a defensive wonder; offensively, he swings hard and for the fences. After Otero fell behind 2-0, he threw an 89-mph sinker that did not sink. Scouts call this sort of pitch “middle-middle.” Russell deposited it in the center-field stands, where it bounced in front of an exit sign, made its way onto the concourse and no doubt bought a hot dog.
This was the Cubs’ night, start to finish. That happens sometimes in a Game 6. Two years ago, Kansas City beat San Francisco 10-0 in Game 6. In 2001, Arizona swamped the Yankees 15-2. Yes, sure, Cleveland occasionally made small comeback noises, but all night they never got within four runs, and Cleveland manager Terry Francona made clear from his moves that he was readying his ammunition for a Game 7.
The Cubs used Aroldis Chapman anyway.
No, it was more than that: Cubs manager Joe Maddon put in Chapman — one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the long history of baseball — in the SEVENTH INNING of a game that he led by five runs. By win expectancy, the Cubs were 97-percent sure of winning. Maddon had an entire arsenal of pitchers who had solid years and certainly could put this game away. And, not incidentally, just two days earlier, Chapman had thrown more innings and pitches than at any point in his career. Also, yeah, Maddon might need a fully-charged Chapman for Game 7.
Still: He went for Chapman. That’s the hunger and sense of desperation that has been on display all series. When Francona feels even the slightest twinge of doubt, he rushes in his own super-weapon, Andrew Miller. Starting pitchers get yanked the instant they inspire even the slightest spasm of uncertainty. Lineups get shuffled around. Hitters swing impossibly hard and at pitches barely in their field of vision. Fielders dive for balls that they know, in their hearts, they can’t reach.
In Game 6, Cleveland’s magnificent young shortstop Francisco Lindor made two spectacular diving stops on ground balls. He had no chance of throwing out the batter on either one, but he threw the ball anyway because this has been that kind of series. Everyone tries to do too much. Everything feels just a little bit more important.
Then, this is probably what we should expect from a once-in-a-century series between one team that has not won a World Series since Harry Truman was in office and another that has not won since Henry Ford built his first Model T. Every single thing that happens in this thing seems to trigger some connection to ancient times. When Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis hit a three-run homer in Game 4, it was mentioned to him that the last visiting player to hit a three-run homer in a World Series game at Wrigley Field was none other than Babe Ruth.
“Wow,” Kipnis said, though the stat is both arcane and baffling. “Anytime you can be connected to Babe Ruth …”
This is that kind of series. Everything points forward and backward at the same time.
And now it is Game 7 — the most-anticipated Game 7 of our lifetimes, in many ways, and both teams have reasons to be hopeful. The Cubs have won the last two games and have have National League ERA leader Kyle Hendricks starting on full rest. Their two best hitters — Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — appeared fully locked-in Tuesday. Bryant, the all-but-certain league MVP, crunched a room-service 77-mph curveball for a titanic homer that started the scoring; he proceeded to get four hits on the night. Rizzo ended the night with a blast of his own on a hanging changeup. Other than being on the road, it couldn’t be a much better setup.
Then, Cleveland has its own reasons to believe. It’s pretty clear that the Cubs are a better baseball team than this beat-up version of the Tribe. The Cubs won 103 games this year and played about as well as any team in recent memory. Cleveland, meanwhile, is missing its best hitter and second-best starter (the third-best starter was too injured to start a single game all postseason; the fourth-best blew up his pinkie in a drone accident). This whole thing has been a magic carpet ride.
And yet, here is the Tribe, playing Game 7 at home, with their best pitcher Corey Kluber — admittedly on short rest again — starting and with their super-bullpen fully rested and ready to pitch as many innings as necessary. It’s about as much as they could have hoped for when this series began.
Game 7s tend to be a mixed bag. They can be classics, like two years ago when Madison Bumgarner took over or in 2001 when Arizona somehow got to Mariano Rivera or in 1991 when Jack Morris refused to yield. They can also be anticlimaxes, like in 2011 when the Cardinals breezed to victory after a circus-ride Game 6 or 1985 when the Cardinals melted down and Kansas City won 11-0. The pressure and anticipation of a Game 7 produces many different kinds of chemical reactions.
But one thing is sure in this series: Both teams — and both managers — will sell out entirely to win. Francona will bring Andrew Miller into the game in the first inning if he feels the game slipping. The Cubs’ Javier Baez will swing at a rumor of a pitch in another state if he believes that he has a chance of driving in a run. Every bar in Chicago will be filled with folded hands and eyes pointed to heaven, and downtown Cleveland will be awash in prayer. It’s always like this in the World Series. This time, though, it’s just a little bit more.