CLEVELAND – It took forever for the Cubs to play in the World Series?
Make that forever and a day.
Indians starter Corey Kluber saw to that by shutting down the Cubs for much of a World Series opener that was 71 years in the making, beating the Cubs 6-0 Tuesday night at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
The Cubs managed just three hits against Kluber through the first six innings in support of their own postseason ace, Jon Lester.
And Indians manager Terry Francona confirmed after the game he pulled Kluber one batter into the seventh because he plans to bring the 2014 Cy Young Award winner back on short rest for Game 4 – putting Kluber in position also for a possible Game 7.
Now what? Winners of Game 1 have won the last six World Series and 24 of the last 28.
“We got a long ways to go,” said Lester, who referenced a lot of the gloom-and-doom chatter after the Cubs lost back-to-back shutouts to the Dodgers to fall behind 2-1 in the National League Championship Series.
“Everybody counted us out after Game 3,” he said. “They said we were the ‘worst best team in baseball.’ We’re here. We’re not giving up. I’m not too worried about what guys say or anything like that. I know my guys.”
After that Game 3 against the Dodgers, the Cubs scored 23 runs to sweep the next three games.
This one was more about Kluber – and two-inning bullpen ace Andrew Miller – than anything else.
“He was just pretty much as dominant as one could be right there,” Anthony Rizzo said of Kluber, whose eight strikeouts through three innings set a World Series record.
At least they had the celebrated return of Kyle Schwarber to help distract from the sting on this chilly night in Cleveland.
And they won’t have to wait long to take their next shot at stealing home field advantage because Wednesday’s Game 2 start time was moved up an hour to 6:08 p.m. because of potential bad weather.
And they’ll have their own 2015 Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta, on the mound looking for the equalizer before returning to Wrigley Field for Games 3, 4 and possibly 5.
“I think there’s a sour taste in our mouth tonight, because I think that we put up a better fight than that,” said shortstop Addison Russell. “I went outside my approach and kind of pressed a little bit. But you turn the page. You stay hopeful and you get better tomorrow.”
Schwarber, who had four hitless at-bats during the season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the third game, returned to start Game 1 as the Cubs’ designated hitter, batting fifth. He struck out on a 3-2 pitch in his first at-bat, but doubled off the right field wall against Kluber in the fourth and walked against Miller in the seventh.
Schwarber is the first non-pitcher in history to produce a hit in the World Series after going hitless during the regular season.
“You could see on the finish sometimes maybe the [knee] brace grabs him just a little bit,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Otherwise, there was no kind of negative atmosphere surrounding his at-bats. I thought they were outstanding, actually.”
The Cubs left the game optimistic over the fact they took Miller out of play for at least the next game by pushing his pitch count to a postseason high 46 in his two innings.
“That’s good for us, and guys getting to see him in the first game I think is always to the hitter’s advantage,” Rizzo said. “I don’t think anyone’s hanging their head.”
Lester blamed himself for the loss because of a two-run first inning that included two walks.
He had allowed two runs combined in three previous starts this postseason (21 innings).
After a two-out single, Francisco Lindor looked to exploit Lester’s problems throwing to bases and eventually stole second. Lester then struggled with command much of the rest of the inning.
He walked Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana to load the bases. And an infield roller toward third by Jose Ramirez went for an infield single and RBI.
Lester then hit former Cubs farmhand Brandon Guyer with a pitch to force in another run before getting Lonnie Chisenhall on a popup behind the plate.
“I’m not worried about the base hit,” Lester said. “I can live with hits. I can live with the homer. I can live with any other hit during the game. It’s the walks. The walks can’t happen. I’ve got to make those guys earn the two runs.”
The homer was a solo shot in the fourth by catcher Roberto Perez, the surprise hitting start who also delivered a three-run shot in the eighth off Hector Rondon. He’s the first player in World Series history to hit two home runs in a game batting in the ninth spot.
Lester and home plate umpire Larry Vanover had words after the third inning over what appeared to be a difference of opinion on Vanover’s strike zone.
“A couple of professionals,” Lester said. “We talked it out. We hashed it out.”
By the end of the game, after putting runners in scoring position in each of the last three innings (including bases loaded in the seventh), the Cubs seemed confident, if not upbeat heading into Arrieta’s start Wednesday.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys,” catcher David Ross said. “This is a resilient group.”
And it’s a group that seems to have quickly shed any sense of awe or wonder at the fact they’re the first Cubs team since 1945 to play on this stage.
“I think we’re doing a good job of allowing ourselves to just play the game,” Rizzo said, “just one game at a time. It’s a cliché but that’s really what you’ve got to do in situations like this, and I think we’re doing a good job of that.”