CHICAGO — Desperate times call for desperate managers.
Here at the World Series, Cleveland’s Terry Francona doesn’t even try to hide the obvious. His team, as presently constituted, without two of its three best starting pitchers in the rotation, isn’t a match for the Chicago Cubs — not if they were to play a 70-game series.
However, the World Series is only seven.
So, with a rotation of Corey “Klubot” Kluber, Josh “Little Cowboy” Tomlin and Trevor Mordecai “Nine-Finger” Bauer all pitching on three days’ rest, Francona plans to try to steal the darn thing, to go along with his two world titles as manager of the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007.
Why? Just because it’s so much complicated gut-twisting fun to see whether it’s possible to maneuver three starting pitchers, three elite relievers and a team full of versatile men who can play multiple positions into a dazzling World Series upset.
After a summarily dismissive 7-2 win over the Cubs on Saturday night for a 3-1 lead in this shocking Series, that upset prospect is now as imminent as sunrise Sunday.
Just two days ago, it was speculated, bravely and openly here, that the Cubs might turn the whole city of Chicago into a madhouse by Sunday night by winning their first World Series in 108 years. Instead, the Cubs, from their manager on down, have played as if frozen in the spotlight, especially at the plate. Chicago batters react to curveballs as if they were some new, never-before-seen illegal pitch at which the Cubs are compelled, as if hypnotized, to lunge at and miss like amateurs.
Meanwhile, with Francona serving as a cheerful, confident cruise-master, Cleveland is on the verge of backing up the NBA champion Cavaliers as Cleveland’s second champion in a major sport in the last 52 years — or five months — depending on how you count.
For the Indians, who got six victorious innings from 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner Kluber, plus homers by Carlos Santana and a three-run game-icing shot by Jason Kipnis in the seventh inning, this would be their first World Series win since 1948.
Don’t book it yet. The Cubs are much too dangerous.
But, for now, playing before shocked and almost silent crowds in Wrigley Field, the Cubs appear to be a classic team-to-beat that met little adversity all season then, when hard times arrived, wearing Indians jerseys, acted young, worried and tight. It hardly seems fair, but it is such a familiar October script.
The heavily favored Cubs get all the pressure, while Cleveland has all the fun even though the Tribe seems to hang by a thread every night. At any time, even now with such a lead, this Series could come crashing down on the Indians.
But, so far, these Indians just don’t care. Embarrassment doesn’t enter their minds. All 25 members of Francona’s team have bought into his one-for-all, do-whatever-it-takes idea. So what if, in a 1-0 win in Game 3, Cleveland used three left fielders, three center fielders, two third basemen, two catchers and four pitchers?
“That was one of the more agonizing games I’ve ever been part of. Usually I really do enjoy them,” Francona said. “We’ve done a few things that are a little out of the box — this series, last series.”
Outside the box? It’s not just that Francona’s only standard for using immaculate 6-foot-7 lefty reliever Andrew Miller appears to be, “Are we terrified yet? Is the game on the line? Okay, get him in now.” The inning, the game situation, the man at the plate? Who cares? Some closers work the ninth inning. Miller works the moment of fate. Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen get six to 10 outs in the same general vicinity as Miller, and the Tribe meets at the mound. The other team says, “What happened?”
So far, Francona is managing circles around Cubs Manager Joe Maddon. In a few short days, Maddon’s club may end up winning this Series — he’s certainly got the horses. But that’s not where we are now.
Maddon, who’s never won a World Series, has already attributed the Cubs getting shut out twice in this series to the youthful inexperience of his core players. “It has a lot to do with youth. That’s what I keep bringing up,” said Maddon for the third time in a news conference. “As we continue to move forward together, the one area that I anticipate is going to get better is offense.”
In other words, just wait and see how good we’ll be in two years. Joe, check the calendar — October. That may hold a World Series record for rose-colored-glasses cop-out (a ’60s tie-dyed term).
The admirable Maddon is a stellar baseball man with wonderful people skills, but he really looks like he’s one level out of his element here with a team that was built to win it all this year — against anybody. And especially against a depleted team like Cleveland. The clock is ticking fast.
The Cubs signed free agents Jason Heyward ($184 million, eight years), Ben Zobrist ($56 million, four years), John Lackey and Dexter Fowler over the winter to a team that had just won 97 games. The late George Steinbrenner would be envious of such greedy grubbing title grabbing. Okay, the 108 years forgives everything. They lost nobody significant. Then they dealt prospects for Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline. This team is loaded — right now.
But Maddon keeps talking about process, as if this is July. And his handling of Heyward, who has seven more years on his deal, is stunning. He’s been jerked in and out of the lineup for bad hitting. On Saturday, Maddon basically went public that Heyward was a lost cause for this season due to fundamentally flawed swing mechanics that damage “how he presents the head of the bat to the ball. . . . Get some help probably [from Cub coaches]. Make it a wintertime approach.”
What about the rest of the World Series? Should Heyward just give up? Uh, no, Heyward was in the Game 4 starting lineup — and presented the head of his bat well enough to get two hits.
While the Cubs may have undermined the confidence of their highest-paid player, Francona keeps giving his players subtle boost. “I don’t know that we’ve peaked,” he said before his team erupted against Lackey. “We haven’t swung the bats very well for a while . . .
“I like these guys a lot. They are very special. I don’t think you have to have the stamp of a World Series on your team to feel this way,” Francona said. “Sometimes things happen you can’t overcome. They’ve done a really good job of overcoming a lot. But if it got to a point where it was too much, that wouldn’t take away how I feel.”
So, no pressure, men, none whatsoever. Just that one more win — often the toughest — still to go.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.