CLEVELAND — At 2:13 a.m. ET, in a champagne-soaked Cubs clubhouse, Anthony Rizzo shouted, “Time to repeat! Turn the page! We’ve got another championship to win!”
Rizzo was joking, of course, smiling broadly after a Game 7 for the ages. The celebration of the Cubs’ first World Series title since 1908 might last until 2108. But Rizzo’s words, taken literally, actually could be interpreted as a warning.
The Cubs, in many ways, are just getting started.
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They might not repeat as champions. Heck, given the difficulty of winning three postseason rounds, they might not win another Series for a good long while. But when you break down how the Cubs won Game 7, the different contributions they received from so many players, it’s nearly as breathtaking as the victory itself.
The victory — 8-7 in 10 innings over a gallant Indians club that frankly deserved better — will stand not just as testament to the Cubs’ talent, but also to their resolve. And their stunning collection of youngsters, nearly all of whom played significant roles in the clincher, will only grow from the experience, having survived.
The game was one of the best any of us have ever seen, full of drama, crazy twists, electrifying moments, pivotal mistakes. I’m not sure I would rank it above the Twins-Braves Game 7 in 1991 or Cardinals-Rangers Game 6 in 2011. But when you factor in the two teams’ histories — the 68-year drought on one side and 108-year drought on the other — the emotional resonance was just stunning.
If not for a 17-minute rain delay before the top of the 10th — a delay that prompted Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward to call a rousing team meeting — we easily could be talking about the Indians as champions, and Joe Maddon’s curious management of the final two games. But history turns on the smallest, seemingly most innocent of events. And for once, history winked at the Cubs. Winked, but only after leaving a number of players in tears.
Closer Aroldis Chapman, summoned to protect a three-run lead with four outs to go, wept in the dugout after allowing an RBI double by Brandon Guyer and game-tying two-run homer by Rajai Davis in the eighth. Shortstop Addison Russell told reporters that he and other Cubs cried during the rain delay while they met in the weight room. And I imagine David Ross – aka “Grandpa Rossy” is off bawling somewhere after hitting a home run in the final game of his career.
Ross wore a microphone for FOX, and the network broadcast a conversation early in the game in which Rizzo told the veteran catcher he was an “emotional wreck.” Ross, a member of the 2013 World Series champion Red Sox, warned Rizzo it would only get worse as the game moved into the later innings. Little did Ross know, the experience would be almost overwhelming.
But the Cubs kept going, and their youngsters kept coming. The team will look slightly different next season — Ross is retiring, while Chapman and center fielder Dexter Fowler are potential free agents. But Game 7, like the rest of the Cubs’ 2016 campaign, offered scintillating glimpses of the future.
Second baseman Javier Baez made two errors and botched a bunt, but also hit a home run. Catcher Willson Contreras hit an RBI double before getting replaced by Ross. And the Cubs’ two-run rally in the 10th included contributions from three other members of the 24-and-under club.
Kyle Schwarber led off the inning with a single, his third hit of the game. Pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. followed by tagging up from first to second on a shot that likely National League MVP Kris Bryant hit to the center-field wall.
After an intentional walk to Rizzo, who by the way, is still just 27, a pair of 30-somethings — Series MVP Ben Zobrist and pinch-hitter Miguel Montero — delivered RBI singles to give the Cubs an 8-6 lead. Maddon then tried to close with Carl Edwards, but ultimately had to summon Mike Montgomery after the Indians cut their deficit to one run. That’s right, Montgomery, the other left-hander whom the Cubs acquired before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, in a separate deal from the one that brought Chapman.
The turning point, though, was what Rizzo called the “best rain delay of all time” — and the pep talk by Heyward, the much-derided $184 million free agent. Who knew that Heyward was the Cubs’ Hunter Pence? Maybe not even the Cubs; Heyward isn’t the type to speak often, or loudly.
Still, Heyward’s teammates repeatedly praised him for his consistent effort and even demeanor as he struggled to the third-lowest OPS in the majors during the regular season and occasionally was benched during the postseason. His defense and baserunning remained elite; Heyward, even though he went 0-for-5 in Game 7, was in position to score the go-ahead run in the ninth after reaching on a fielder’s choice, stealing second and advancing to third on a throwing error by catcher Yan Gomes.
In any case, Maddon is fortunate that Heyward helped snap the team to attention; otherwise, the manager’s overkill with Chapman in Game 6 and premature removal of Kyle Hendricks in Game 7 would be the subject of intense scrutiny. Maddon also said before Game 7 that he wanted to use Jon Lester only at the start of an inning, then inserted him in the fifth with a runner on base.
Ah, but to the victors belong the spoils. Maddon, who from the very first day of spring training encouraged his players to “embrace the target,” proved the right manager for a team that needed to learn how to perform not only under massive expectations, but also the weight of history.
The Cubs did it, rallying from a three-games-to-one deficit in the Series, winning the final two games on the road. The Indians never were comfortable even when they were one win shy of the title — manager Terry Francona quietly said of the Cubs, “They’re better,” before Game 5. But the better team doesn’t always win in the postseason. And the Cubs prevailed only after Indians ace right-hander Corey Kluber and lefty reliever Andrew Miller finally wore down in Game 7.
“Man, this one about made me pass out,” said Zobrist when asked to compare his Cubs’ championship to the one he won with the Royals last season. “It was like a heavyweight fight, man, just blow for blow, everybody playing their hearts out. The Indians never gave up either, and I can’t believe we’re finally standing, after 108 years, finally able to hoist the trophy.”
The trophy is theirs, all right. And the way things look, it will not take 108 years for the Cubs to win their next one.