The Cubs coasted to a playoff berth with 103 victories in the regular season, eight more than any other team. But their path to Game 7 has been pocked with strife, and so far they have survived it all.
They needed a ninth-inning comeback, down by three runs, to escape the first round in San Francisco, against a Giants team with three recent titles. Their offense disappeared for 21 innings in the National League Championship Series, which they trailed, two games to one, in Los Angeles. Then they routed the Dodgers the next three games, beating Clayton Kershaw in the finale.
The biggest test has come in the World Series. The earlier trials have helped.
“I think for sure they did,” Rizzo said. “It wasn’t no cakewalk for us facing the three-time champions in the first round, and the Dodgers with Kershaw and the way they’ve figured out ways to win all year.”
In the Indians, the Cubs have faced a team that tore through the American League playoffs, losing just once in eight games, and a manager, Terry Francona, who started his World Series career 11-1.
After splitting the first two games here, the Cubs charged into Wrigley Field last week with a chance to win it all at home. That went away in a 1-0 loss in Game 3, and then they lost to Kluber — again — in Game 4.
That raised the dispiriting possibility of a visitor’s winning the World Series on the Cubs’ grounds. It happened in 1945, when Hal Newhouser pitched the Detroit Tigers to a Game 7 victory at Wrigley and sent the Cubs into a World Series hibernation that lasted seven decades.
But losing in quite that fashion — by dropping Games 3, 4 and 5 at home to finish the series — is a rare kind of indignity, last suffered by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983. The Cubs essentially felt it last season, by losing the last two games of an N.L.C.S. sweep to the Mets at Wrigley.
“The Mets beat us, and we had to hear all about that for the full season, even when you win 103 games,” catcher David Ross said. “It’s always something. I’ve learned that in the game. There’s always something to overcome, there’s always ‘How you gonna do this, how you gonna do that?’ This group has answered the bell.”
That was a fitting figure of speech. Before Game 5, the Cubs showed various “Rocky” movies on the clubhouse TVs. Rizzo did his best Sylvester Stallone for his teammates, and he had the Wrigley Field sound system play the theme song before his first at-bat. Yes, “Rocky” might be a cliché by now, and Chicago is a long way from South Philly — but the Cubs could relate.
“Just let everyone know we plan on going the distance,” Rizzo said that night. “Obviously, there’s a lot more that goes into that, but we bought in and we believe in it.”
The Cubs fell behind in Game 5. It was only 1-0, in the second inning, but still: The Indians had not gone from leading to trailing in any game this postseason. Yet in the fourth inning of Game 5, they did, with the Cubs’ offense showing all the ways it could score: with power (a Kris Bryant homer), speed (a Javier Baez bunt single) and situational hitting (a Ross sacrifice fly).
Aroldis Chapman earned his first career eight-out save to preserve the victory for Jon Lester and force the series back to Cleveland. Bryant’s homer started it again in Game 6, and Addison Russell drove in the next six runs to build a commanding lead.
Cleveland outfielders Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall helped the Cubs by letting Russell’s pop fly drop safely for a two-run double in the first. But there was no defense for Russell’s grand slam in the third.
“It’s unbelievable,” the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist said of Russell, who hit .391 with the bases loaded this season. “It seems like he’s just licking his chops when he gets the opportunity, and his confidence goes up that much more.”
There was no comeback for the Indians, but just to be sure, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon called for Chapman in the seventh inning for the second game in a row. Now the seventh game is upon us.
This is bound to cause anxiety for Cleveland fans, who have waited for a title since 1948 and endured a blown save in the ninth inning of Game 7 in 1997. A fan held a sign outside the left-field gate at Progressive Field on Tuesday afternoon that read, “Let’s Forgive Jose Mesa,” referring to the closer who lost the lead that fateful night in South Florida. But Mesa may not be absolved just yet.
The Cubs were better than the Indians this season, and their drought is longer; they passed the 68-year mark of misery in 1976, when the first “Rocky” movie was still in theaters. But an Indians loss in Game 7, after they led the Series by three games to one, would echo the Cavaliers’ N.B.A. triumph in reverse: The Cavs trailed Golden State by 3-1, and won the clincher on the road.
“It’d be nice to finally do it in Cleveland in front of our fans,” second baseman Jason Kipnis mused in the clubhouse before Monday’s light workout. He noted that the Indians had clinched the division in Detroit, a division series in Boston and the last round in Toronto.
For that matter, the Indians also clinched the 1995 American League pennant in Seattle, and the 1997 A.L. crown in Baltimore. Can’t this city host one championship party?
On Wednesday, it will. But it just might be localized in the visitors’ clubhouse.
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