Monday, November 7, 2016

The Little Team That Almost Did

By Jeff Kallman

Somewhere in the middle of the party enveloping Wrigleyville, which isn't likely to re-open until spring training, at minimum, the heart of every Cub fan knows without having to say it. They ended baseball's longest championship drought the hard way.

And they ought to congratulate the Cleveland Indians for making the Cubs absolutely earn it, no matter what surrealities came into play in Game 7 or, frankly, in the entire World Series. Rarely has any team robbed of so much taken a World Series to the absolute final out with so little left to expend from their bold selves as the Indians took.

When journeyman Michael Martinez, literally the last man manager Terry Francona had standing, grounded out in the bottom of the tenth to Kris Bryant for Game 7, set, and Series to the Cubs, you realized the Indians had played so far over the heads left to them in Game 7 that against any other team they still might have ended their own second-longest championship drought.

"We were going on our willpower," said Rajai Davis, another journeyman who damn near rocked the Cubs back down to earth with his earth-shattering, eighth-inning 2-run homer into the Progressive Field left field pavilion. "We have some talent, but they have a lot of talent. They were loaded."

The Indians had more than "some" talent. Despite losing Michael Brantley to a season-ending shoulder injury in April and starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to injuries down the stretch. Salazar recovered in time for the Series, but had to be limited to very limited bullpen duty. Losing those three stung.

"Tonight summed up this team: Never give up, next man up, no excuses," said relief star Andrew Miller, a free agent-to-be, whose tank finally went empty in Game 7. "It was so fun to be a part of. It hurts right now, but it was a blast to be a part of. We achieved a lot with so many obstacles."

However miraculous you think the Cubs' triumph was, you'd have to look at the banged-up Indians as a miracle club in their own right. Losing Brantley, Carrasco, and Salazar should have been their death sentence. Yet they managed to keep it wide enough in the American League Central to come down the stretch with no lead smaller than four games from 11 August forward.

But few gave them chances against the American League East-winning Red Sox. Yet they swept the Red Sox in the division series and outscored the Olde Towne Team 15-7, celebrating Miller's and the rest of their skin-tight bullpen's coming out party while they were at it. Then, they beat the Blue Jays in the League Championship Series in five.

All of a sudden the Indians looked like a match for the Cubs. And when they took a 3-1 Series lead, there were those writing the Cubs' obituary already. The Cubs' vaunted lineup seemed almost sound asleep, other than that almost excuse-us! looking 5-1 Game 2 Cub win, and the Indians looked like they were going to pitch the Cubs' ears in. And anything else they could find.

Corey Kluber out-pitched Jon Lester in Game 1 and the Indians went right to the 'pen in the fifth inning. Josh Tomlin matched shutout innings with Kyle Hendricks in Game 3 before the firm of Miller, Shaw, and Allen stepped in to finish what Tomlin started. And Kluber returned on short rest to go six one-run innings in Game 4 while Miller and Dan Otero finished up and put the Cubs on life support.

When Trevor Bauer relieved Bryan Shaw in the tenth of Game 7 and got two fast outs to end the inning, about the only thing Indians fans could ask was, "Where was this Trevor Bauer when we needed him?" Bauer had started and lost Games 2 and 5 and looked eminently reachable despite a few solid confrontations.

Indians fans might be asking more to the point, "Where was Ryan Merritt?" The rookie left-hander had only started Game 5 of the LCS and shut the Blue Jays out before handing off to the Firm (Bryan Shaw got credit for the win), and it might have been understandable for Francona to think first of Kluber, Tomlin, and Bauer, but keeping Merritt from getting anywhere near a Series start after Bauer looked so rickety in Game 2 may have helped cost them the World Series.

It was a collection of semi-spare parts, a couple of shutdown starters, and a no-bull bullpen that got the Indians to within a game of the Promised Land. They used a combination of oft-wounded, oft-inconsistent journeymen named Chisenhall, Crisp, Davis, and Guyer, and a rookie named Naquin in the outfield and got that close.

(How did Davis lead the American League in stolen bases on the season and then get away with four postseason thefts, including three in the Series, at an age when the wheels begin leaking fluid?)

They had a veteran thumper named Mike Napoli playing first base and coming into the postseason having hit 34 home runs and driven in 101 runs on the regular season. He hit only .173 (9-for-52) with one bomb and three steaks all postseason long. Everyone in Believeland waited for Napoli to re-heat. He couldn't even light a match. Yet the Indians pushed the Cubs to the brink with lesser men doing the clutch hitting.

Terry Pluto, the Cleveland writer who wrote The Curse of Rocky Colavito in the early 1990s, called this year's Indians the Little Team That Could. After Game 4, they looked like the Little Team That Would.

Then came Game 5 and Bauer surrendering three runs in the third, including re-awakening Kris Bryant's leadoff bomb in the fourth to tie the game at one, while Lester and his bullpen made the 3-2 score stick to the end.

Followed by Game 6, when Tomlin got pried for 6 runs as the rest of the Cubs' bats continued rising from the dead, while Chapman answered what Francona called the "big ask," stopped the Indians dead with first and second in the bottom of the seventh before working a clean and swift enough eighth, getting an inning-ending double play after a one-out single.

And, Game 7. When Kluber and Miller pitched on fumes. But when Davis parked his game-tying bomb and the game finished nine full, the Indians had to think they had a chance despite the rain delay. Especially when Guyer walked, took second on defensive indifference with Davis at the plate, and Davis swatted him home with a nasty single to short center, Guyer on his horses at the crack of the bat.

Except that Francona went so all-in to win it that he had no position players left, nobody to bring off the bench, and Martinez representing the winning run. The Little Team That Could turned out to be the Little Team That Almost Did.

"It's going to hurt," said Francona, whose clever use of his bullpen and manipulation of his Carrasco-and-Salazar-less rotation will be dissected for years if not decades to come for what it almost accomplished. "It hurts because we care, but they need to walk with their head held high because they left nothing on the field. They tried until there was nothing left."

Hell, these Indians tried past the point where there was nothing left. And the Cubs knew it. "I think on the surface, looking at it from my perspective, really evenly matched teams that play the game the same way," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "A lot of passion about it, a lot of respect for the game itself. And I know Tito, I know he's always been that guy."

He'll always be that guy, too. Francona busted one actual or alleged curse in Boston twelve years ago. Don't rule out the prospect that he'll bust an actual or alleged curse in Cleveland soon enough. All he has to do is keep the disabled list at bay, and maybe prevent rain delays.

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