CLEVELAND — By the time the ball settled into the glove of Jason Heyward in right field, Wednesday night was just minutes from turning into Thursday morning. The seventh game of the World Series was in the process of transforming from historic to transcendent.
And in left field, the Progressive Field grounds crew began unfurling that most dispiriting piece of equipment, the tarp.
Rain delays are a part of baseball, as inevitable and boring as pickoff throws and pitching coaches’ visits. The spirits of 38,104 transfixed fans in the stands sank. What now?
How to know that what followed was perhaps the most important, most transformative rain delay in baseball history? Seventeen minutes between the bottom of the ninth and the top of the 10th. Seventeen minutes in which the reeling Chicago Cubs, engulfed by their own history even as they ignored it, cleansed themselves. Seventeen minutes to forge what became the Cubs’ 8-7 victory over the Cleveland Indians early Thursday morning.
“I really feel like, in some ways, that rain delay was kind of divine intervention,” Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer said later, standing in shower slides and athletic shorts in the visitors’ clubhouse. “The game was going really fast for us at that point.”
The really fast part came in the bottom of the eighth, a frame the Cubs entered leading 6-3 and exited all tied up, developments that came about because Brandon Guyer hit a run-scoring double and Rajai Davis connected for a mind-addling two-run homer.
Both blows came off Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman, who could not have known the rain was bearing down on Progressive Field when he took the mound, in a somewhat fragile state, for the next inning, the ninth. Chapman didn’t know that the fact he retired the top of the Indians’ lineup in order — Carlos Santana on a fly ball, Jason Kipnis on a strikeout, Francisco Lindor on the fly to Heyward in right — would allow the Cubs to survive.
So when the tarp rolled out at 11:54 p.m., the rest of Chapman’s teammates retreated to the clubhouse, unsure when or if play would resume. Chapman remained on the bench. He cried.
“He needed to know: It happens,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “That’s what we had to tell him. ‘It’s not your fault. We’ll pick you up.’”
Hoyer and his boss, Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations, sat anxiously in their seats. When the tarp rolled out, they rose and headed to a tunnel that ran underneath the stands behind home plate. They found Suite D5, the designated “rain room,” where MLB officials monitored the weather and decided best how to proceed. Among those already assembled were Commissioner Rob Manfred; MLB chief operating officer Tony Petitti; Hall of Fame Manager Joe Torre, who serves as MLB’s chief baseball officer; top communications official Pat Courtney; Bernadette McDonald, the league’s senior vice president of broadcasting; and Indians President Chris Antonetti along with General Manager Mike Chernoff.
The meeting was brief. The cell that produced a torrential downpour would pass quickly, Epstein and Hoyer were told. Within minutes, the league announced they expected to resume play around 12:15 a.m. Epstein and Hoyer headed to the visitors’ clubhouse to share the information with Manager Joe Maddon. The players needed to remain ready.
They already were.
As he entered the clubhouse, Epstein walked past the Cubs’ weight room. A group of players had gathered inside.
“I saw all our players, and I got a little concerned,” Epstein said. He didn’t know if there was some sort of issue.
What was happening, though, was extraordinary. No Cub had a more difficult October, a more difficult season, than Heyward. He was among the splashiest signings of last offseason’s free-agent period, the recipient of an eight-year, $184-million deal that showed understanding of his value as the game’s best right fielder and faith in his development, at age 26, as a hitter. In the contract’s first year, the Cubs weren’t rewarded. Heyward hit .230 and managed just seven home runs. By some measures, he was among the worst offensive players in the game. For large chunks of the postseason, he served as an expensive defensive replacement.
Wednesday night, though, Epstein cracked open the door to the weight room and heard the players who were due up the next inning — Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and others — talking about what was going to happen in the 10th.
“This is only going to make it sweeter!” Epstein said he heard. “Let’s grind, boys. Let’s stick together. Here we go.”
The meeting grew, though, to include the entire team. And it grew because of Heyward, at that point 0-for-4 on the night and a frighteningly easy out, about to deliver his most significant contribution of the year.
“Come in here,” Heyward said, according to left fielder Ben Zobrist, due up fourth when the game resumed. “I’ve got something to say.”
So, following a summer full of glee and hope at Wrigley Field, the most maligned Cub spoke up.
“I know that that was just the perfect situation for it to happen,” Heyward said following the game. “It worked out that way. We’re always looking forward, as a group collectively, to help stay positive. The rain stopped the game for us, and we just needed a brief moment to kind of collect ourselves and be reminded of who we are.”
Up the tunnel from the weight room, Maddon checked his own weather map and discussed the situation with Epstein and Hoyer. Throughout the postseason, the 62-year-old manager was asked repeatedly what he would tell his team in certain situations. The answer, invariably: Nothing.
“I hate meetings,” Maddon said. “I’m not a meetings guy.”
But there’s one caveat, and it’s significant.
“I love when players have meetings,” Maddon said. “I hate when I do.”
So the Cubs organized themselves, with Heyward at the helm. The previous nine innings, the three-run lead in the eighth — all of that was behind them, unchangeable. What they could handle sat ahead: another opportunity to win the game.
The Indians knew the same applied to them. But as rain delays go, this was atypical, and not just because it preceded the 10th inning of the seventh game of the World Series, but because 17 minutes is about as brief as any delay in any park at any time of year could possibly be. There were no card games, no sandwiches. There almost was no time to kill.
“It was almost like just a long inning when there’s a pitching change or something,” Cleveland reliever Bryan Shaw said. “We didn’t even really have to get loose again.”
The Cubs returned to their dugout. Epstein and Hoyer returned to the stands, where their families and other Cubs staffers awaited. The dread of the collapse had been put on pause, pivoted, and turned around to a simple thought.
“If we win one inning,” Hoyer said, “we win the World Series.”
At 12:11 a.m. Thursday, Schwarber dug into the box against Shaw. He took one ball, then drilled a cut fastball into right field, a single.
The rain delay was over. The Cubs won that one inning. And then — it’s still amazing to say — they won the World Series.