Some final thoughts on one of the greatest and one of the most important World Series ever played, a true showcase for baseball:
1. The order of things
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Joe Maddon managed aggressively, if not curiously, with the way he used Chicago's pitchers in Games 6 and 7. But give him credit for perfect lineup construction in those games that helped his team win.
Key move No. 1: Putting Kyle Schwarber in the second spot in the order. Schwarber hit fifth in Games 1 and 2. By moving him up, with Kris Bryant protecting him in the No. 3 spot rather than Javier Baez at No. 6, Schwarber was able to see more pitches to hit. Schwarber reached base five times in 10 plate appearances hitting second, and it was his 10th-inning single off Indians righthander Bryan Shaw that started the Series-winning rally. .
Key move No. 2: Keeping Ben Zobrist behind Anthony Rizzo. Maddon preferred Zobrist behind Rizzo during the regular season, but he didn’t start the year that way and, as much as he likes to tinker, never did so for more than nine games in a row. But the combination helped win Game 7.
“Zobrist is the consummate protector,” Maddon said, understanding that Zobrist is so good from both sides of the plate (.823 OPS from the left side, .856 from the right side) that he creates bullpen matchup problems.
With one out and Albert Almora on second base in the 10th, Indians manager Terry Francona intentionally walked Rizzo. He made the move not so much for getting a double play, but because he understood that the next run in a 6-6 game would likely decide the outcome. His best chance of getting out of the inning with the tie intact was to go through Zobrist and Addison Russell, not Rizzo and Zobrist—especially because Rizzo was 2-for-2 against Shaw and matches up well against Shaw’s best pitch, the cutter. Rizzo hit .370 this year against cutters from righthanded pitchers.
It almost worked. Shaw jumped ahead of Zobrist 1-and-2, a count on which Shaw ended 53% of the time with a strikeout.
But at that critical juncture you saw the difference between the 2015 Cubs and the 2016 Cubs. Last year Chicago was the worst two-strike hitting team in baseball (.154). This year the club improved its two-strike average by 30 points (.184) to rank third. And the addition of Zobrist was a major reason why this team was tougher to put away.
Zobrist fouled off one pitch before slicing his go-ahead double to the opposite field.
I caught up with Cubs president Theo Epstein in the food room of the visitors’ clubhouse at Progressive Field after Chicago's 8-7 win over the Indians in Game 7. He talked about how important was the impromptu players-only meeting in the weight room during the rain delay before the 10th inning. But Epstein didn’t know who called the meeting until I told him: Jason Heyward. He perked up with even more joy.
Think about that: Heyward was 5-for-47 in the postseason with one RBI (on a groundout in the NLCS), including 0-for-4 that night at the time of the delay. The guy who was mired in this horrendous slump was the one who called the most important team meeting in franchise history. It says much about Heyward’s resolve and character, that he would not to be consumed by his own failures but, rather, would lift the energy of others in a moment of crisis.
That said, the Cubs know they have a problem with the awkward way Heyward hits. He re-grips the bat just as the pitcher swings his arm back. When he does re-position his hands, Heyward turns his left (top) hand into a position that is so strong that his left wrist curls—a position that makes it impossible to swing with loose wrists or to be quick on pitches near his body.
Chicago's hitting coaches, John Mallee and Eric Hinske, knew about this flaw when spring training began, but they decided that to ease Heyward’s transition to a new team they would leave him alone rather than rebuild his swing in spring training. But as the season went on, they gave him a quick fix to try out: an interlocking grip, in which the pinkie and ring finger of his left hand interlock over his right hand. The golf-type grip prevented Heyward from locking his wrists. But there was a problem.
“I was never comfortable with it,” Heyward said. “I couldn’t keep two hands on the bat, and if I can’t keep two hands on the bat it just doesn’t feel right.”
So Heyward went back to his awkward re-gripping style—and pitchers exploited his obvious holes of velocity in and up. (The only fastball he could hit was a fastball away and belt high or lower, because it allows more time for the barrel to get there than to spots in and up.)
In the regular season an astonishing 70% of pitches Heyward saw were fastballs (four-seam, two-seam and cut fastballs). That number went up even more in the postseason, to 73%, something you see against pitchers but almost never to position players, let alone to $184 million corner outfielders. Heyward went 4-for-36 (.111) against postseason fastballs, including 0-for-13 on 77 inside fastballs. He literally could not hit that pitch.
The Cubs won the World Series with a key contribution from Heyward: not from his bat, but from his leadership. (His outstanding defense never wavered.) Now they can get on with the business of fixing his swing, which they will do in the off-season. Expect to see a different Heyward in spring training.
Let’s remember how badly the Indians were hurt by late-season injuries to starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. The former didn't pitch at all in the postseason because of a broken finger, while the latter missed the first two rounds with a strained forearm and returned to pitch three innings in the World Series. Without them in shape to start, and needing one win to become World Series champions, Francona in Games 5, 6 and 7 started Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Corey Kluber all on short rest (Kluber for a second straight time and third time in four starts). In those potential clinchers those pitchers went 0-2 with an 11.32 ERA while giving Francona just 10 1/3 combined innings.
• Game 7 was a tossup, but in retrospect the series turned in the fourth inning of Game 5 when Bauer—just six outs away from getting a 1-0 lead to the bullpen—went away from his curveball and decided to challenge people. The Cubs produced hits on three consecutive swings on fastballs: a 1-1 fastball that Bryant hammered for a home run, a first-pitch fastball that Rizzo ambushed for a double into the ivy on the rightfield wall and a 3-0 fastball that Zobrist jumped on for a go-ahead single. All three men scored, providing enough runs for Chicago to win the game. Cleveland would never again have the lead for the rest of the series. It was a rare postseason game when the team that scored first did not win. In the LCS and World Series, the team that scored first went 16-2.
• After seeing curveballs 10% of the time during in the regular season, Bryant saw curves 15% of the time in the postseason—not really a huge difference, about one curve per game. But after hitting .189 against curveballs in the regular season, Bryant hit .364 against them in the postseason. “I love hitting curveballs,” he said. Bryant loves to hit the ball in the air, and curveballs are easier to elevate.
• In Game 7 the Cubs became the first team in postseason history to get hits from three catchers in the same game: Willson Contreras, David Ross and Miguel Montero.
• Ross, Lester and Lackey became the first players to win World Series rings with the Red Sox and the Cubs.
• The key misplay by Cleveland centerfielder Tyler Naquin that gave Chicago two extra runs in the first inning of Game 6 was not the result of “miscommunication.” Naquin simply made a fundamental mistake by a centerfielder—the captain of the outfield—by taking his eyes off the flyball from Addison Russell and looking for rightfielder Lonnie Chisenhall. On the previous play he went tentatively after a groundball single by Zobrist in the same rightfield gap. It was a case of a rookie who was struggling at the plate—he was 1-for-5 with three strikeouts in the World Series and had struck out in 12 of his 23 postseason plate appearances—and, losing confidence, took his offense out to the field with him.
• Mmmm good: Only 18 major league players this year had first and last names that begin with M, but three of them converged for the last out of the series, and none of them started the game. Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery retired the Indians' Michael Martinez on a grounder with Miguel Montero behind the plate.
• Only two pitchers have recorded a World Series win against the Cubs by a 1-0 score: Andrew Miller, in Game 3 this year, and Babe Ruth, in Game 1 in 1918.
• You can tell it’s been a long time by this: Time of game for Cubs World Series clinchers: 1:42 (1907), 1:25 (1908) and 4:28 (2016).
• Excruciating: The Indians have played in the two longest Game 7s in World Series history and lost them both: 1997 (4:10) and 2016 (4:28). They have played four games that would have brought them their first World Series title since 1948. And they have lost all four of them, three by one run: 3-2 (in 1997) and 3-2, 9-3 and 8-7 (in 2016). They became only the third team to lose Game 7 scoring seven runs or more, joining the 1925 Senators and 1960 Yankees, both of whom did so at Pittsburgh.
• The Cubs had $80 million worth of pitchers in their bullpen for Game 7.
• I ran into Bill Murray, leaning against a wall outside the Cubs’ clubhouse, soon after Game 7 and asked him what thoughts came to his mind at a time like that. Murray, 66, was born in Evanston, Ill., and raised in Wilmette, Ill. Turning serious, he said, “My parents and grandparents, and all the people who never got to see this.” Murray’s father, Edward, died in 1967. His mother, Lucille, died Nov. 2, 1988. Game 7 was played on the exact date of his mother’s passing 28 years later.