CLEVELAND – Hope has been a Cubs fan’s best friend for more than a century, but it always seemed to be aimed at a distant speck on the horizon.
Suddenly, shockingly, wait until next year has become wait until tomorrow. Hope might not be strutting quite yet, but it does have a skip in its step.
The Cubs play the Indians in Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night with every reason to believe that their fortunes have turned and that maybe, just maybe, they can win this thing.
That they trail the Indians 3-2 with the final two games in Cleveland might seem to be darkness personified. Forget that. Darkness was being down 3-1 before Game 5 began. Darkness was two straight losses at Wrigley Field going into Sunday night’s game.
By comparison, what we have here is a light show of possibility.
The Aroldis Chapman game might have changed everything. (If the Cubs do win this series, it will forever be known as the Aroldis Chapman Game, capital “G.’’) Joe Maddon, no shrinking violet, especially on a national stage, surprised just about everybody when he brought his closer into the game with one out in the seventh inning of Game 5. Chapman responded with 2 2/3 innings of shutdown pitching in the 3-2 victory. You’ve heard of air guitar? Cleveland hitters played air bat against him. He struck out four of the eight Indians he faced.
This series was always going to be about the pitchers, but they have become even more the focus. The Cubs have Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks scheduled for the next two games, respectively, and the Indians will answer with Josh Tomlin and Corey Kluber, who will pitch on three day’s rest for the second start in a row, if he has to.
What this really comes down to, though, is which team can get to its star relievers first. Now that Chapman has broken through whatever barriers he erected about pitching more than an inning, he’ll surely be available for longer work again in Game 6. It really is do or die, and it really is all hands on deck. All those clichés.
If the Indians have a lead, they’ll turn to reliever Andrew Miller, who has been almost unhittable in the postseason, and closer Cody Allen.
It’s a race to get to the relievers’ arms.
Arrieta probably doesn’t want to hear that, but every Cubs starter in the playoffs has learned this lesson. Is Arrieta a better pitcher than Tomlin? Yes, but Tomlin was very good in October, and Arrieta was up and down. If the Cubs want to get to Game 7, they very much need the up version of Arrieta. It would make things so much easier on breathing passages in the greater Chicago metropolitan area.
But the feeling among the Cubs and their fans should be one of optimism. There are no givens here, of course. The Indians are a complete team, and it’s going to take something extraordinary to beat them two games in a row at Progressive Field. The Cubs can do extraordinary. They did extraordinary in a 103-victory regular season. They did extraordinary in the Game 5 victory before a roaring crowd at Wrigley.
Besides the good Jake, the Cubs could really use the Javy Baez who shared the National League Championship Series most valuable player award with Jon Lester. The guy swinging from his heels and missing badly in the World Series looks like the Javy from 2014, his rookie season.
Lurking is Kyle Schwarber, who has a chance to build on his sports miracle story. He’ll DH again in Cleveland after sitting out most of the regular season and all of division and championship series because of a knee injury. In his short time with the Cubs, he has shown a fondness for rising to the occasion. This would be the occasion of all occasions.
The last team to win a World Series after being down 3-1 was the 1985 Royals, but they didn’t have to win the final two games on the road to do it. This is going to take some enormously heavy lifting by the Cubs. They’re a strong bunch, but so is Cleveland. The Indians likely didn’t envision themselves winning three straight at Wrigley to close out the Series, so it’s hard to see them on their heels after the Game 5 loss.
But this is about what the Cubs are feeling, and the word that comes to mind is emboldened. That’s miles beyond hopeful.