CHICAGO — For six months at Wrigley Field, the sun beat down and the suds flowed, and the world was awash in possibility, possibility that had so rarely been considered over generations. The little park at the corner of Addison and Clark was the epicenter of the baseball world, and who was having more fun than Chicago Cubs fans?
Sunday night, Wrigley will host its 89th and final baseball game of the year. If the Cubs don’t win it, the phrase this franchise was trying so hard to rid itself of — Wait till next year! — will regain its rightful place in the local lexicon.
The Cleveland Indians’ blitz through October continued Saturday night, and by this point it is obvious that the obstacle with which they must deal doesn’t matter one bit. They thoroughly beat the Cubs in Game 4 of the World Series, 7-2, and they now have a 3-1 lead in the series. There is now, for the Cubs, the unsavory possibility that this unforgettable summer at the 102-year-old ballpark will end with another team dancing across their infield, celebrating a championship on their dirt.
“As much as you want to say, ‘One game at a time,’ you know the task,” said Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who made two errors in one inning. “You got to win them all.”
It is how this town feels at the moment. Now, instead of looking forward to the games ahead, the history roars up from behind, and it is ugly. They are, they know, one loss away from moving to 109 years since the last World Series title. They cannot win three games on Sunday, when veteran Cy Young candidate Jon Lester will oppose Cleveland right-hander Trevor Bauer in Game 5. They cannot expunge a century of frustration in nine innings.
“We need to worry about winning an inning or scoring a run,” said Cubs right-hander John Lackey, who allowed two earned runs in five laborious innings. “We can’t be getting ahead of ourselves. We got to win an at-bat, win a pitch.”
The team that has been doing the winning: the Indians, who have fairly dominated the sport over its most important month. Saturday night, as Cleveland won for the 10th time in 12 postseason games, ace Corey Kluber threw six innings of one-run ball on three days’ rest, Carlos Santana had three hits including a solo homer and second baseman Jason Kipnis finished things off with a three-run blast in the seventh, one that turned something that resembled a ballgame into a slog-to-the-finish blowout.
The Indians have arrived here, considered the Cubs’ supposed superiority and collectively shrugged. If it’s really “Cleveland against the world,” the world is losing, and badly. In those dozen postseason games, the Indians have scored nearly twice as many runs as their opponents, a 42-22 margin that is dominating, and shows that — if indeed this becomes their first championship since 1948 — it will be well-deserved.
The assessment of their manager, Terry Francona, whose next misstep this month might be his first: “Nothing needs to change.”
Except, with one more win, a city’s sporting legacy. Basketball’s Cavaliers broke the ice in June. Now, one win in three games would bring the Indians their first title in 68 autumns. The last team to blow a 3-1 lead in the World Series was the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, who needed an umpire’s blown call to allow the Kansas City Royals to storm back. Today, that call would likely be overturned by replay.
That kind of history would fit into the Indians’ past. It is a past this group is trying to change.
“The last couple of series we’ve kind of jumped out to leads, and we’ve talked about the same things, not letting them in because we’ve probably faced three of the tougher lineups in baseball,” Kipnis said of the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Cubs. “They’re not lineups you want to give momentum. They’re not teams you want to start feeling good about themselves. So the best thing to do is kind of put them away before they can do that.”
Wrigley, at the moment, doesn’t feel good about itself. The Cubs’ dynamic young lineup has disappeared for long stretches, and now at the worst possible time. In their last nine games, the Cubs have been shut out four times and scored just one run once. Joe Maddon, their manager, openly lamented his team’s undisciplined at-bats in Friday’s 1-0 loss, in which his kids expanded the strike zone.
“It’s just a matter of us gaining offensive confidence,” Maddon said late Saturday. “That’s what we need right now.”
The only time Wrigley has at all been able to loosen its collar in the first World Series games here since 1945 came in the bottom of the first, when an Anthony Rizzo single put the Cubs up 1-0. That lead lasted all of six pitches into the second, when Santana crushed a 3-2 fastball from Lackey into the right field seats.
Sit back down, Cubs fans. Button the top button again and straighten out the collar. The Indians won’t allow for relaxing.
“They don’t need a talking-to,” Francona said of his troops. “They’re doing just fine.”
That includes Kluber. He is, people sometimes need reminding, the 2014 American League Cy Young winner, and his two-seam fastball, which darts in on left-handers, is one of the best pitches in the game. After he allowed that run in the first, he wasn’t bothered by what amounted to lifeless threats from the Cubs — two on with two outs in the third, a leadoff double from Rizzo in the sixth.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in the game for a reason,” Bryant said.
And even though Kipnis’s three-run homer off Travis Wood put the game essentially out of reach in the seventh, Francona went with what got him here, turning to lefty Andrew Miller in the seventh with a six-run lead. If the Cubs fans weren’t already stunned into silence, maybe the night’s most surprising development would have been that someone actually scored off Miller. Dexter Fowler’s solo homer is now the only blemish against Miller in 17 postseason innings.
So the night left the Indians in a simple and enviable position.
“Our goal tomorrow is to win,” Francona said.
And it left Wrigley with winter in reach. In the eighth inning, as a means of firing up the crowd, the mammoth video board in left-center field showed highlights of the Cubs’ ninth-inning comeback that beat San Francisco and clinched the division series. The 41,706 in attendance seemed not to pay attention.
Wait till next year? For now, it’s wait till Sunday night. What those fans know is that it will be the old yard’s last game of the year. What’s to be determined is whether another team ends up in a human pig pile at its center, exorcising the kind of demons the Cubs wanted to purge themselves.