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Jason Heyward, crying Cubs and the ‘best rain delay of all time’

CLEVELAND — Aroldis Chapman walked slowly off the field, his night’s work finished, his season — and, perhaps, his time as a Chicago Cub — over. After blowing a save in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, Chapman at least had kept the Indians scoreless in the ninth.

For the Cubs, it was on to extra innings. For Chapman, owner of the most sizzling fastball in baseball history, it was back to the dugout to try to keep his composure and support his teammates.

He couldn’t do it.

It would be unfair to say the Cubs were unnerved Wednesday night by the site of their towering, muscle-bound closer crying in the dugout, but that’s only because many of them already had lost their cool themselves. The Indians’ three-run, game-tying rally with two outs in the eighth was a staggering blow.

Jason Heyward (center) helped the reeling Cubs refocus during the brief rain delay before the 10th inning of Game 7. (Elsa/Getty Images)

“We worked so hard,” young shortstop Addison Russell said, “and for them to just come back like that made it feel like it was slipping through our grasp.”

For the best team in baseball, there was doubt setting in. Fear, too. “Vulnerability,” Russell called it. But then rain forced what would turn into a 17-minute delay before the start of the 10th inning.

“I believe God brought that rain for a reason,” Dexter Fowler said.

Five, 10, 20 years from now, Cubs fans may or may not remember how severely Jason Heyward struggled at the plate during his first season as the team’s right fielder. But his moment of leadership when the team needed it most — heading into its clubhouse during that brief delay — will be told and retold as a matter of Cubs lore.

Heyward saw the shattered expressions on the faces of some of his teammates and, though normally soft-spoken, initiated an impromptu team meeting right then and there.

He was, in his words, “heated” and “venting.” He challenged teammates: “Where’s that fire we’ve had all year?” But then he told them he loved them. He called them his brothers.

“Fight for your brothers!” Heyward shouted.

Russell and rookie Willson Contreras both admitted later, when the champagne-soaked clubhouse had turned into the center of the partying universe, that they’d cried listening to Heyward’s words and while trying to express their own feelings to teammates in the ensuing minutes before play resumed.

“He looked at us and told us we were all winners,” Contreras said. “He said, ‘I’m so proud of you guys. We’re not giving up. We’re playing Game 7 and we’re going to win it.’ It was amazing. A bunch of us were crying.”

The tears flowed again from Contreras after Ben Zobrist’s 10th-inning hit scored Albert Almora Jr. with the go-ahead run. The result was still in doubt, he understood, but he knew that all was right again with the close-knit Cubs.

“I just felt so lucky to be on this team,” Contreras said, “but I was looking down at the floor because I didn’t want the cameras to see me crying in the middle of the game.”

It really was, as Anthony Rizzo called it, the “best rain delay of all time.”

“We came together tonight on a new level,” Russell said.

Amidst the cacophony of the Game 7 clubhouse celebration, Heyward patiently discussed his actions during the delay. But he repeatedly — and completely in character — downplayed his role in turning the game around.

“I don’t need to take any credit for anything,” he said. “I just love them so much that, win or lose, I would hate to see them not be themselves.”

In that 10th inning, they were themselves and more. They were champions — on a whole new level.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com