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Game 7 of the World Series moved to the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 6–6. Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman, distraught and weary, returned to the mound at Progressive Field. Miguel Montero was his catcher, and he practically creaked with rust behind the plate. He had caught only two games in the past 32 days.
The top of the Indians’ lineup was due up: Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor. Chapman was poor at holding runners, and Montero was poor at throwing. With stolen bases in order, Cleveland seemed one base runner away from winning the World Series.
“They had all that momentum and three really good hitters to start the inning,” Chicago general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I thought, ‘This is unbelievable. How is Chapman, on total fumes, going to get through these guys?’ It is the untold story of the World Series.”
Chapman had thrown 83 pitches in the past three games over four days, plus the approximately 60 he threw warming up to pitch in eight different innings. He had entered this game in the eighth inning and surrendered a 6–3 lead. He now fell behind Santana 3 and 1.
Oh my goodness, Hoyer thought, if he walks him here, all of a sudden this place is going to be so loud.
Chapman threw his worst fastball of the night: 97.8 mph and in the upper half of the strike zone. Santana took it for a strike. At 3 and 2, Montero called for a slider and set his target low. The pitch hung in the middle of the plate with no bite to it—a worse delivery than the previous one. Santana popped it up into leftfield. One out.
Kipnis was next in what would be another at bat that reached a full count. Chapman threw him six consecutive sliders. Montero was calling a completely different game with Chapman than David Ross had the previous inning. What was going on?
“To be honest,” Montero said, “I hadn’t been out there behind the plate in so long, and catching a guy throwing a hundred is not easy when you haven’t played. I didn’t feel comfortable about catching his fastball.”
Chapman was unable to throw 100. His fatigue showed not just in the diminished velocity on his fastball, but also on the lack of tilt on his slider. He hung three of the six sliders to Kipnis: one on the first pitch that Kipnis took for a strike, one on 1 and 1 that he fouled hard and fairly deep down the rightfield line, and one at 3 and 2 that he fouled straight back, after which he whirled around in anger, knowing he had missed his chance at a fat pitch.
“The truth is, I thought Kipnis had ended the game when Chapman hung a slider to him,” Hoyer said of the 1-and-1 pitch. “That at-bat was terrifying. And the story line is too easy if he beats us: the kid from Chicago who grew up on the same street as Bartman beats the Cubs.”
At 3 and 2, Montero called for a fastball. He set the target down and away. Chapman threw whatever he had left—it was 99 mph—and missed badly above the strike zone. But Kipnis, after seeing slider after slider, chased it and missed. Strikeout. Two outs.
Next: Lindor. With his 97th pitch over three games in four days, Chapman started him with another fastball, down and in. Lindor popped it up to Jason Heyward in rightfield. Three outs.
This would be one of the most frenetic Game 7s in World Series history. The Cubs and the Indians combined to put 34 runners on base. The only Game 7 with more base runners was played 104 years earlier, in 1912, when the Red Sox and the Giants put 38 runners on. Chicago and Cleveland put at least one runner on in 16 of their 20 turns at bat.
But the most amazing half inning of all might have been one of those four half innings when “nothing happened”: the bottom of the ninth. Facing Cleveland’s three best hitters, when one run would have ended the World Series—and one base runner might easily have led to that run—Chapman threw 14 pitches: 10 sliders and four fastballs. At least six of the 14 pitches were full-blown mistakes in the strike zone. Somehow, Chapman got away with all of them.
“People don’t give him enough credit for going out there the next inning [after losing the lead] and getting three outs,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Most of the time I like [starting catcher Willson] Contreras in there with Aroldis. That was a concern when I put Jon Lester in [in the fifth inning] and put David Ross in to catch him.
“But again, it’s the seventh game. You have no game tomorrow. You have veteran players. You just have to trust them.”
Rain. Not in torrents and sheets, but just too hard and too much to play baseball. It was almost midnight. Joe West, the crew chief umpire, ordered play stopped and the field covered.
The Cubs began walking back to the clubhouse, their heads dropped and their faces blank. It was the look of a team that knew something bad had happened to it. The Cubs blew a three-run lead four outs away from their first World Series title in 108 years, and now they would have to try to win an extra-inning World Series Game 7 as the road team—something that had never been done before.
“Guys, weight room! Won’t take long!”
The strong voice that pierced the quiet belonged to Heyward, who had struggled to hit all year after signing a $184 million contract, who began the World Series on the bench and who was hitting .106 for the postseason. Heyward was calling a players-only meeting.
Directly behind the visiting dugout at Progressive Field is a weight room about 50 feet long by 25 feet wide. One by one the Cubs traipsed in.
“When we got in,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “the mood was definitely down. All of us were just kind of pacing, and then J starts speaking.”
Heyward began, “I know some things may have happened tonight you don’t like….”
“At first I was afraid it was going to be negative,” Ross would say later, “and I thought, This is nothing any of these young players needed to be hearing. But it wasn’t that at all.”
“We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best team in baseball for a reason,” Heyward said. “Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.”
Other players began to speak up.
“Chappy, we’re going to pick you up.”
“This is only going to make it better when we win.”
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein, on his way back from the “rain room” where MLB officials had updated him on the weather, lingered in the hallway outside the weight room and eavesdropped. The darkness over him suddenly lifted.
“It snapped me back,” he said. “It reminded me of how much I admired them and how tough they are, how connected they’ve stayed, and the great things human beings can accomplish when they set out to achieve for other people, not for themselves.
“From my position I can see it: the sacrifice the scouts make when they drive the extra miles to get that last look at a player, the minor league coaches putting in extra hours, the big league coaches crushing video, the players working on their weaknesses, picking their teammates up—that’s what makes a great organization. That’s Cub.
“Right then I thought, We’re winning this f—— game!”
The entire delay took only 17 minutes, but a different team came out of the weight room from the one that had entered it.
The players returned to the dugout. Reliever Bryan Shaw prepared to go back to the mound for Cleveland. Kyle Schwarber, due to lead off the inning in only his 17th at-bat since returning from torn ligaments in his left knee, headed to the bat rack. “Borzy, I’ve got this,” he told catching coach Mike Borzello. “Don’t worry. I’m locked in.” The dugout suddenly was alive with shouting and joking.
Ross, sitting midway down the length of the bench, remembered what had happened in the clubhouse before the game. An hour before Game 5, Rizzo had broken out his pregame inspirational and comedic presentation, quoting motivational lines from movies with no clothes on. The Cubs won, so Rizzo did it before Game 6, too. They won again, so he did it prior to Game 7 as well.
An hour before the seventh game of the World Series, Rizzo stripped off all his clothes, cranked the theme from Rocky on the clubhouse stereo one more time, jumped on top of a coffee table and began quoting lines from the movie and throwing his best shadow-boxing punches. Pitcher Héctor Rondon, joining in on the hijinks, picked up an aerosol can of shoe cleaner and sprayed it in the direction of Rizzo’s groin.
Startled and angered, Rizzo stopped and yelled, “What the heck, man!” He cut the music and stormed off toward the showers to clean off the spray.
“I’m thinking, Dang, what’s he doing?” Ross said. “We can’t have this negative vibe right before the game. I go by there. I can tell he’s a little irritated.”
Ten minutes went by. Rizzo finally emerged from the shower. He walked back silently to his locker with a towel around this waist. The room was quiet and uneasy.
Ross walked up to Rizzo and broke the silence.
“Hey! It’s not how many times you get knocked down … it’s how many times you get up!”
Rizzo chuckled. “You know what?” he said. “You’re right!”
Said Ross, “He rips the towel off, runs up, turns the music on again, and he jumps back on the coffee table and starts doing the Rocky motions again.”
Now, as Schwarber got ready to hit, Ross turned in Rizzo’s direction and yelled at him, “Hey, it’s not how many times you get knocked down….”
On cue Rizzo completed the battle cry, yelling back, “It’s how many times you get back up!”
Rizzo then launched into a clothed version of his pregame routine, yelling, “This is like Tyson-Holyfield! … This is a heavyweight bout! … This is going to make it that much better when we win!” The dugout laughed.
“He brings that energy, and that kind of goofy, funny energy that everybody gets,” Ross said. “And he’s got this huge, 12-year-old grin on his face. That baby face. He’s just so likable when he smiles.
“And we have a lot of those guys. Dexter Fowler. And Heyward, he’s got one of those contagious laughs. Javy Báez, when he laughs and smiles, he’s just one of those guys you can’t help but be in a good mood with.”
The Cubs and the Indians in 2016 had combined to play more than 400 games, including spring training, and when they were tied after nine innings in the final game of the World Series and after 176 combined years waiting to win another title, the heavens opened up—just hard enough and just long enough for the Cubs to hit the reset button. It was the ultimate dramatic pause.
“Even at the time, it felt like an amazing stroke of luck for us,” Hoyer said. “I mean, which team needs the rain delay? Not them.”
As the two teams prepared to resume play, West, who worked his first major league game 40 years ago, walked past where this reporter was stationed for the FOX broadcast, toward his post on the rightfield line.
“What do you think, Joe?” I asked him.
“I think if you don’t love this, there’s something wrong with you.”
On the first swing after the cleansing rain, Schwarber slammed a loud single through the shifted Cleveland defense on the right side and ran to first base, pumping his fist and screaming into the Cubs’ dugout. He left to a hero’s welcome in the dugout as Maddon sent Albert Almora Jr. to pinch-run for him.
Kris Bryant continued a remarkable night of hitting persistence when, after getting in a 1-and-2 hole, he took one pitch from Shaw and drove the next deep to centerfield. Bryant arrived at spring training as the Rookie of the Year, but he was unhappy that he had struck out in 31% of his plate appearances. He dedicated himself to being more selective and tweaking his powerful, uppercut swing so that his barrel stayed in the zone just a bit longer. He cut his strikeout rate to 22%, an enormous improvement for a sophomore player. The fly ball he hit off Shaw came on the 34th pitch he saw in Game 7, 15 of which came with two strikes. Only one of those resulted in a whiff.
Almora broke about halfway to second base, where he was prepared to take off if Bryant’s shot landed in the outfield or hit the wall. That’s when he noticed that Rajai Davis, unhurried, was gliding as if he had a good read on the fly ball.
“I’m a centerfielder,” Almora said. “I knew he had it lined up.”
Almora dashed back to first base. Davis caught the ball near the wall. Almora tagged and sprinted to second. He ran the go-ahead World Series run into scoring position with one out. It was a terrific, smart baserunning play by a rookie, but one that was not all that surprising given the strong will of the then-teenage player who sat with Epstein and scouting director Jason McLeod in his Hialeah, Fla., living room in 2012. Almora back then essentially begged the two Cubs executives to draft him. His words were prophetic:
“I’m telling you, all I want is a chance to go out there and help the Cubs win the World Series.”
Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod all noticed the synchronicity of what had just happened, though none had to say it aloud. With Game 7 tied in the 10th inning, their 2014 first-round pick singled, their ’12 first-round pick ran for him, and their ’13 first-round pick hit a two-strike fly ball to move him into scoring position.
Almora’s smarts put Cleveland manager Terry Francona in a bind. To get the next two outs without a run scoring, he could choose to pitch to Rizzo and Ben Zobrist or, by intentionally walking Rizzo, Zobrist and Addison Russell. Rizzo wasn’t sure what to expect. Both he and Francona knew that he was swinging a sizzling bat—but among the two of them, only Rizzo knew that bat was a smaller, lighter one than usual.
Rizzo’s entire postseason had changed in the fifth inning of NLCS Game 4, when he switched from his Marucci model bat to one that belonged to teammate Matt Szczur. To that point Rizzo was 2 for 26 in the playoffs. The bat, as the story went, was identical to Rizzo’s own model in size and weight but was full of amazing karma. Szczur, an outfielder who wasn’t even on any of the playoff rosters, became a minor national star simply by lending his equipment.
The press ate up the story, but there was one catch: It was built on a white lie.
I pulled Rizzo aside on the eve of the World Series, just after he had finished his media-day obligations at Progressive Field, in which yet again Rizzo led people to believe that his bat and Szczur’s were similar, except for the incredible luck Szczur’s bat brought him. Rizzo made a confession to me, but only after he made me promise it was off the record until the Series was over. I agreed. Szczur’s bat was significantly smaller than his own: one inch shorter and two ounces lighter. Rizzo switched bats not for luck, but as a concession to losing strength and bat speed.
“It allowed me to free up my hands and not have to use my body,” he said. “Because at the end of the year I was so beat, I guess. In the beginning of the playoffs I was missing fastballs. I kept asking myself, Why? My swing is good. It could be psychological, but I think not. But I think taking the extra inch off and lightening my bat, I started to get to those pitches again.”
Rizzo knew that because of the way he struggled early in the playoffs, scouting reports on him would say that his bat was slow and that he could be beaten with fastballs. Meanwhile, with Szczur’s bat, he actually was much quicker to the ball. It was a secret he enjoyed for the final 10 postseason games, during which he hit .432.
Francona elected to intentionally walk Rizzo. This situation confirmed why Maddon batted Zobrist behind Rizzo. “The consummate protector,” he called Zobrist, a switch-hitter.
Shaw, throwing nothing but his usual hard cutters, jumped ahead of Zobrist, 1 and 2. Zobrist went to his B hack—a shorter swing, to prioritize making contact; “B hack ’em!” had become a Cubs rallying cry—and choked up on the bat. Shaw tried to come in with a cutter but missed up and away. Zobrist, shooing it away like a bee, flicked it foul, past the Cleveland dugout. Shaw came back with another cutter, but not as up and not as away. It was in the strike zone. Zobrist carved it past third baseman José Ramírez and well inside the leftfield line. Almora came steaming home with the tie-breaking run, Rizzo pulled into third base, and Zobrist jumped onto second with a double, punctuating the big hit with a fist pump.
Standing on third, Rizzo put both of his hands on his head and said aloud, “Oh, my God.”
“The way that game had gone,” Rizzo explained, “not even a four-run lead was safe…. But when we came out and punched them right there in the teeth and scored, it was like, ‘O.K., that’s it. That’s the game. We’re going to win.’ And I’m over there like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to win the World Series.’”
With first base open, Francona issued another intentional walk, this time to Russell, which filled the bases and put a double play in order with Montero at bat. On a 1-and-1 count Shaw tried to bury a cutter on Montero’s hands, but he didn’t get it inside enough. Montero pushed it into leftfield for a single, scoring Rizzo to put Chicago ahead 8–6.
The hit not only gave the Cubs an insurance run, but it also capped an extraordinary night for their catchers. Maddon started with Contreras, only the third first-year catcher to start a World Series Game 7, then used Ross, who was playing the last game of his 15-year career, and then Montero, the proud veteran who had lost playing time in the postseason. Each of them drove in a run. It was the first time in postseason history a team used three catchers and all of them had an RBI. It was only the second time in the history of baseball, the other being an otherwise meaningless game in April 1964 in which three Twins catchers drove in runs against the Washington Senators.
Trevor Bauer stopped Chicago from blowing it wide open. Relieving Shaw, he left the bases loaded by striking out Heyward and retiring Báez on a fly ball.
During the rain delay Maddon had used some of the time to recalculate his pitching plan. Chapman was spent. Jake Arrieta, the Game 6 starter, had been in the bullpen since the third inning and told pitching coach Chris Bosio he was good to go. But Maddon decided that, whether the game was tied or he held a lead, Carl Edwards Jr. would start the inning, backed by Mike Montgomery if a matchup called for a lefthander. Edwards and Montgomery, combined, had pitched in 106 major league games. Between them they had two saves, both by Edwards. Neither one was even on the team as recently as the middle of June, when Edwards was in the minors and Montgomery was with the Mariners.
Edwards, the String Bean Slinger, a 2011 draft pick out of a round, the 48th, that no longer exists, locked down two quick outs. He struck out Mike Napoli and retired Ramírez on a grounder.
Now the really hard part: the last out to end a 108-year drought. Suddenly Edwards lost the strike zone. He walked Brandon Guyer on five pitches, four of them well below the bottom of the zone. Bosio visited the mound, both to slow down Edwards and to give Montgomery more time to get warm.
Pitching to Davis, Edwards threw another ball, a pitch on which Guyer advanced to second without a throw. The next pitch was a fastball down. Davis hammered it on a line to centerfield for a single, easily scoring Guyer.
“I thought, Oh, my God. Really?” Hoyer said. “Two outs and no one on base and we’re going to give these guys some air? That’s when you get nervous. You start thinking, O.K., if we can’t win it here with a two-run lead, nobody on and two outs, maybe we just can’t win.”
Maddon walked to the mound and signaled for Montgomery to face switch-hitting Michael Martínez with the speedy Davis, the tying run, at first base and the championship-winning run at the plate. Maddon had no idea that Montgomery didn’t throw a single strike while warming up in the bullpen. But he did know that Montgomery first had warmed up as early as the third inning, almost three hours before.
“I hate when the guy warms up that early in the game, sits and comes back that late in the game,” Maddon said. “But there were no options.”
Montero met Montgomery on the mound.
“What do you want to do here?” Montgomery asked.
“Don’t worry,” Montero said as he turned to the plate. “I’ll figure it out by the time I get back there.”
Montgomery threw his eight warmup pitches. He didn’t deliver a single strike. Oh, my God, Montgomery thought. I have no idea what’s going to come out of my hand.
Behind the backstop, Hoyer was worried too. Davis stole more bases, 43, than any other player in the AL. If he swiped second base, the Indians could tie the game with a single.
Montero, once in his crouch, decided to start Martínez with a curveball. It looped perfectly into the outside third of the strike zone. The pitch, after all those poor warm-up tosses, immediately relaxed Montgomery. O.K., he thought, I’ve got this.
Montero called for another curve. Hoyer never saw the pitch. His eyes were locked on Davis, fearful that he would be stealing. Davis did not run. The curveball was a near duplicate of the first one—thrown to the same spot, but slightly harder. Martínez swung and topped a slow ground ball to the left of the mound. The next four seconds were a study in how many thoughts a human mind can process in such a short period of time.
“I thought it was an infield hit,” Hoyer said. “I really did. It was hit weakly by a guy who can run.”
Said Ross, “Off the bat it’s like, ‘Oh, please be hit hard enough to get him.’ It was one of those in-between ones, a dribbler, that are tough.”
Bryant, charging between the mound and third base, fielded the ball after a third bounce, and stepped with his left foot toward first base as he drew back his hand to throw with a right arm that had been cramping all night. Just as his plant foot landed, and just as his arm came around to throw the ball to Rizzo, Bryant’s spike slipped on the wet grass. His arm dropped as the ball left his hand. A smile creased Bryant’s face while this moment of danger was happening.
“I see that his foot slips,” Maddon said, “and I went, ‘Oh, s—.’ ”
“I didn’t notice until I saw the replay,” Hoyer said. “Oh, my God, his foot slips two or three feet! I have a really hard time watching the last play. You would think you would relish it and watch it over and over. But Kris’s foot slipped so much on the throw—I swear I watch that play and I see the ball going in the stands.”
On another day, in another year, in another karmic vortex in which the Cubs seemed to be stuck for more than a century, maybe the throw, triggered by one slip of the foot caused by rain that appeared to have saved them, sails over Rizzo’s head, down the rightfield line, and Davis comes skittering all the way home with the tying run. Those days and such thoughts officially ended when the throw from Bryant arrived on target—at about the height of the C on Rizzo’s cap—and safely in the mitt of Rizzo at 12:47 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2016. From lovable losers to champions, the five-year rebuild of the Cubs was complete.
“I think everyone would agree with this,” Hoyer said. “The emotion of that Wednesday night was just relief. We stared into the abyss and actually had not fallen in.”
“I felt,” Ross said, “like the weight of the world was off our shoulders.”
The Cubs, for as much as they played the role of the favorite throughout the year, forged a legacy as a great comeback team. Down three runs in the ninth to the Giants, and three outs away from facing Johnny Cueto in an elimination game, they came back to win the NL Division Series. Down two games to one to the Dodgers, and shut out for 21 straight innings, they came back to win the pennant. Down three games to one to the Indians, and having scored just two runs in the three defeats, they came back to win the World Series with three straight elimination game victories. In the denouement, they came back after blowing a three-run lead.
“That’s why this team is world champion right now,” Epstein said. “We all pick each other up. We have that chemistry. If you don’t have that, you have nothing.”
The last out triggered bedlam, and too many thoughts and emotions to process.
“It is surreal,” Maddon said. “Your mind has all these options, and it doesn’t know what to focus on. Of course, the victory itself, 108 years, your dad, your mom, your wife, your family, your players, your fans … He caught it. He caught it!
“It’s a feeling like no other. It’s incredible. It was gratifying that we did it. It was unbelievable that we did it so quickly. Everybody talks about how wonderful our team is. Does anybody realize how young we are? How actually green and inexperienced we are? Nobody’s even talking about that when they say you’re the favorite to win, you have the best team in baseball. I’m thinking, Does anybody understand how young these guys are?”
That night, not long after the final out, the heavens opened again, this time with more conviction. Many of the Cubs players, their families and their friends lingered on the field in the hard, cool rain on an unusually warm November night. Joyful and relieved, nobody was in a hurry to get out of the downpour. They let it wash over them. It was a feeling that went far beyond Progressive Field. From the packed streets around Wrigley, where people had gathered all night, to the sons and daughters who watched with fathers and mothers in the biggest baseball television audience in a quarter of a century, to the many who wanted this night even more for the ones they loved and buried than for themselves, the faithful everywhere did not need the cool rain upon their skin to feel the change.
The Cubs, and all of their attendant culture, are redefined. The Cubs are champions. That’s Cub.