No sweat: Calm starting pitchers face off in Game 7
If baseball momentum is the next day's starting pitcher, the Cleveland Indians still very much like their chances of sending the Chicago Cubs home for the winter without a World Series trophy for the 109th consecutive season.
Corey Kluber, who is 2-0 in the World Series against the Cubs and won Games 1 and 4, takes the mound for the Indians on Wednesday night in a Fall Classic finale long on historic heft.
Kluber pitched six innings in both starts and allowed zero runs, but a second consecutive outing on short rest — three days instead of the customary four — adds a physical and mental variable to the pressure-packed spotlight moment.
“It's been a blast,” said Kluber, the low-key ace of the Indians. “I think that we've all really enjoyed ourselves. I think we can take a lot from the way we approached it and not treating it more than just each game is another game and trying to go out and win that day. Not trying to look too far ahead or things like that. I think there's value to taking that approach throughout the course of a season, too.”
Manager Terry Francona might gladly shred his Game 6 scorecard, with two home runs propelling the Cubs to a 7-0 lead in the fourth inning en route to a 9-3 win. The Indians are chasing their own ghosts after squandering a 3-1 series lead. Cleveland last won the World Series in 1948.
Kluber is looking to match the feat of Mickey Lolich, who won Game 7 after starting the first and fourth games for the Detroit Tigers in 1968. Kluber is 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA this postseason, and he gave the Indians — and American League — home-field advantage by winning the All-Star Game in San Diego.
“Good players, good pitchers, can do special things, and he's in that category,” Francona said.
Awakened from a 22-inning slumber, the Cubs are racking up runs much the way they did as the National League's best offense in the regular season, when manager Joe Maddon led the team to the Central Division title by 19 games.
With designated hitter Kyle Schwarber back in a shuffled lineup, the Cubs are expected to field a similar lineup to the one that Kluber dominated at Progressive Field in Game 1. Kluber and the Indians' lights-out bullpen teamed to strike out 15 in the World Series opener.
Ten consecutive World Series that began 3-1 were lost by the team facing that deficit.
For the Cubs to be the first team since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates to escape such a hole, Maddon cited early offense and the bullpen as the best way to make history.
Another flat-line righty, Kyle Hendricks, starts for the Cubs in Game 7. At windy Wrigley Field on Saturday, he lacked command of his high-movement arsenal but kept Chicago in the game. Hendricks led the NL in ERA (2.05) and keeps the ball down to prevent big rallies.
“This is the ultimate dream,” Hendricks said. “You dream of getting to the World Series, winning the World Series. When you're out in your backyard as a kid, playing Little League at the field with your friends, this is the moment you dream about, Game 7, 3-2, two outs, something like that, bottom of the ninth. But it's always Game 7 of the World Series.”
Maddon wants to ride his starter in the deciding game but explained to his entire pitching staff that all hands will be on deck. Jon Lester and John Lackey are definitely available in relief, Maddon said, if Hendricks finds trouble. After using closer Aroldis Chapman for eight outs in Game 5, and going to him in the seventh inning again in Game 6, Maddon might need to be creative to finish the seventh game.
However, with Hendricks on the hill, the Cubs will be fairly certain early in the game whether their starter has his A-game.
“If you see the hitter blink or take a pitch that is obviously a strike, and he does not mention anything to the umpire and he knows it's a strike, that tells you how much his ball is moving and how fine it is,” Maddon said. “When I'm watching from the side and I see that, I know he's going to have a good night.”
The middle of the Cubs' batting order was reconfigured in Game 6 with Schwarber, who tagged Kluber for a double in Game 1, batting ahead of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist. Bryant homered Tuesday for the second game in a row but is hitless in eight at-bats with three strikeouts against Kluber.
Cleveland's offense gets a second look at Hendricks on Wednesday, and two players — third baseman Jose Ramirez and shortstop Francisco Lindor — have two hits in two at-bats against him. The Indians had six hits, two walks and one batter hit by a pitch facing Hendricks last week.
“I'm just going to embrace the opportunity like I have the rest of this postseason, honestly,” Hendricks said. “Approach it like any other game, simple thoughts, the same old thing.”