CLEVELAND — The sixth game of the World Series wasn’t yet an hour old, and already it had arrived at two separate moments on which it might pivot. Two on, two out in the first. One out, bases loaded in the third. Both times, Addison Russell of the Chicago Cubs stepped to the plate and dug in.
On the mound in the first instance stood Cleveland Indians right-hander Josh Tomlin, who possessed at that point a curveball that wouldn’t properly curve and a cutter that wouldn’t properly cut. On the mound in the second instance: right-hander Dan Otero, who arrived at the rubber as a parent walks into a toddler’s room, toys scattered everywhere, the mess Tomlin left behind.
There will be a seventh and final game of this World Series between these two franchises, whose karma has been mostly catastrophic. Wednesday night, over the final nine innings of the year — or maybe more — one hex will be broken, the other will continue. That happy bit of history will occur because in those two moments, Russell took a pair of swings that pushed across six runs — including an absolutely crippling grand slam off Otero — and the Cubs rolled to a 9-3 victory that equaled this World Series at three games apiece.
With that, it should be noted that Russell tied the record for most RBI in a World Series game. But that is so secondary.
“We’ve been doing this all year — been breaking records, been putting in new history in history books,” Russell said. “You wouldn’t be able to tell that just from us group of guys.”
Let’s make sure we have our facts and figures straight about what’s at stake on Wednesday night, when Cleveland ace Corey Kluber will take the mound for the third time this series, trying to become the first pitcher to start and win three games in the same World Series since Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers in 1968, carrying a 0.89 postseason ERA into the start. His opponent: Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks, a professorial sort from Dartmouth who posted the lowest ERA of any starter in the game this year and clinched the Cubs’ first pennant in 71 years with a brilliant performance.
And all that’s riding on their right arms, in one game: the happiness of a fan base whose fathers can’t remember the last title, mostly.
“This is what we always wanted,” Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “Every one of us, as kids — Game 7, 3-2 count. No one said Game 3, Game 5. This is what we want.”
The Indians’ championship would break a 67-year drought. The Cubs’ futility stretches back another Roosevelt, to the presidency of Teddy, and the fall of 1908. Their fan bases self-identify not with moments of celebration, but with the cuts of devastation. Where were you when Jose Mesa came on for the Indians in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series? Where were you when Alex Gonzalez booted a potential double-play ball in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series?
It’s quite a way to go through life. For one team, and one fan base, life changes Wednesday night.
“Of course — of course — we want to be the group that breaks the string,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “. . . It’s just correct and apt that we’d go seven games.”
This seventh game, though, comes after at least 175 others for each team. A pitcher pitching in November is almost certainly a tired pitcher, and Cleveland right-hander Josh Tomlin pitched Tuesday night on three days’ rest. Even the first out Tomlin recorded — a line drive to third off the bat of Dexter Fowler — was ripped. Kris Bryant then unloaded on an 0-2 curveball to get the Cubs on the board. Two singles later, up came Russell, relaxed.
“He’s just not pressing as much,” said Bryant, who had four hits.
With two down and runners at the corners, he got a 1-1 cutter from Tomlin that he could handle, and sent it to right-center.
“Off the bat,” Russell said, “I thought it was going to be kind of a routine play.”
On a 71-degree night in November, the Indians somehow turned into “Disney on Ice.” Lonnie Chisenhall, whose play in right field during this series suggests that he might want to spend the offseason — crazy thought here — learning how to play right field, came after the ball. So did rookie center fielder Tyler Naquin, who — how to put this? — is a poor defender. They both wanted the ball, until neither one did.
“It’s one you wish you could take back,” Naquin said.
So it landed on the grass. When Ben Zobrist lowered a shoulder and scored the Cubs’ third run of the inning by barreling over Indians catcher Roberto Perez, he popped up and screamed. He might as well have bellowed, “On to Game 7!”
If there was any doubt that’s what awaited, Russell removed it in his next at-bat, which came after Zobrist’s infield single loaded the bases in the third, a development that drove Tomlin from the game. His replacement: Otero, a central part of Francona’s bullpen all year. And yet here, the best he could offer was a 2-0 sinker that got far too much of the plate. Russell laid into it, a grand slam that would have quieted Progressive Field — had there not been so many Cubs fans here.
“He was patient enough to get a pitch that he could work with,” Maddon said. “And that’s what we’re talking about with our young hitters. As they gain more experience, they’ll be able to do those kind of things.”
What was left was merely to clean up, put the furniture back where it belonged and set up Game 7. But Maddon made the curious decision to stick with his closer, Aroldis Chapman, not just for the final out of the seventh — for which he retired Lindor — but for the eighth with a five-run lead.
“The meaty part of their batting order,” Maddon said, “if you don’t get through that, there is no tomorrow.”
But the perplexing part: After Anthony Rizzo launched a two-run homer in the top of the ninth, Maddon sent Chapman back out, now with a seven-run advantage. Maddon couldn’t, he said, get right-hander Pedro Strop warmed up quickly enough. Chapman walked his only hitter of the ninth.
“I think he ended up with 20 pitches,” Maddon said, “so I don’t think that was much more impactful than 16.”
But how much Chapman has left will be a key question going into Wednesday night. All that remains in the balance: What two cities think about themselves, their psyches for the next generation.