By Scott MacLean
The 112th edition of Major League Baseball’s World Series gets underway tomorrow with the American League Champion Cleveland Indians and National League Champion Chicago Cubs squaring off in the best-of-seven decider, concluding a season that started way back in mid-February when players starting reporting for spring training.
After taking the AL Central by eight games the Indians have rolled through the playoffs; sweeping the Boston Red Sox 3-0 in the Divisional round and then beating back the Toronto Blue Jays 4-1 in the League series. The club is seeking their first Word Series title since 1948, having been beaten since in 1954 and again twice in the 1990’s, when an offensive juggernaut was stopped in 1995 by the Atlanta Braves pitching staff and upset in 1997 by the upstart (then) Florida Marlins.
The Cubs history of futility is a story in itself, full of tales of curses, goats, and an unfortunate bloke named Steve Bartman. The northsiders haven’t won a title since 1908, and haven’t even played in a World Series since 1945. This season however, aside from a few days midseason when the San Francisco Giants past them in the standings they’ve owned baseball’s best record, winning 103 games and then beating the Giants (3-1) and Los Angeles Dodgers (4-2) in the playoffs so far.
How does it shape up this year?
The Boston connection: The Red Sox might have been eliminated, by ties to that club binds people on both sides. The Cubs front office is headed by Theo Epstein, who built the teams that ended Boston’s own streak of futility while pitcher Jon Lester (2007, ’13) and catcher David Ross (2013) also won titles with the Sox. The Indians are managed by Terry Francona, who led Boston to the 2004 and 2007 titles, with outfielder Coco Crisp (acquired from Oakland midseason) on the latter team, while first baseman Mike Napoli was also on that 2013 squad.
The lineups: Both sides have lineups full of positional flexibility and managers that aren’t afraid to use that to the fullest extent. The Cubs attack is led by a quartet of youngsters; current Rookie of the Year and this seasons MVP favourite Kris Bryant and Javier Baez have been dependable so far in the playoffs – the latter exceptionally so – while after slow starts Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell have both heated up. Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist (who won a title last year with Kansas City) provide a stable veteran presence, while an X-factor could be another youngster in slugger Kyle Schwarber who could make the roster despite missing almost the whole year after tearing his ACL and MCL in the first week of the season. The Cubs are also very solid in the field on defense.
The Indians have a similar core group. Regular designated hitter Carlos Santana and infielders Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, and Francisco Lindor are all homegrown players with the latter, the club’s shortstop, and a bona fide star in the making who excelled in the League series. Napoli brings a big bat to the heart of the lineup and has had a nice bounceback season but their outfield is a bit mix-and-match, managing without Michael Brantley and Abraham Almonte, out with season-ending injury and ineligibility due to an earlier suspension for PEDs respectively. They are also the weaker of the two clubs in the field, but are aggressive on the basepaths (Rajai Davis led the AL in stolen bases) and will seek to use that to their advantage.
The pitching staffs: About six weeks ago the Indians looked in great shape, but then suffered the loss of two parts of their rotation in Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco that had some calling an end to their hopes. That also took another hit when Trevor Bauer cut his pitching hand prior to the league series and could only manage a pair of outs in his start against Toronto before bleeding from the wound saw him forced from the game. Despite these they have navigated the issues and will start their ace and 18-game winner (and 2014 AL Cy Young winner) Corey Kluber in game one followed by Bauer and then Josh Tomlin, while Salazar could make a return to start Game 4.
The Cubs haven’t announced their starters yet, but it seems likely that 19-game winner Lester will start the opener, followed by reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, a frontrunner for this year’s award in Kyle Hendricks, and lastly veteran John Lackey (who started and won Game 7 for the LA Angels way back in 2002).
Where considerable interest will lie though is in the two bullpens, where two left-handers who started the season with the New York Yankees, and acquired in trades from the Bronx club, will be pivotal figures. The Indians Andrew Miller was utterly dominant in the league series, taking MVP honours are retiring 23 of 26 batters he faced, striking out 14; while the Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman conversely had his struggles. On paper the Indians, with Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen look the better group, but the Cubs could turn more to Travis Wood and Carl Edwards Jr more than they have so far.
The managers: How two of the best match wits and moves like chess masters will be fascinating. Francona has an 8-0 record in the World Series, leading the Red Sox to sweeps over the St Louis Cardinals in ’04 and Colorado Rockies in ’07. Now in his fourth year in Cleveland he is in his third stop as a big-league manager after earlier stints in Philadelphia (1997-2000) and Boston (2004-2011); and this postseason has been characterised by aggressive moves, particularly in his use of Miller, and a masterful job working through Bauer’s enforced early departure in the LCS.
The Cubs are managed by Joe Maddon who is perhaps the most unconventional thinker in the manager’s job in the big leagues. He managed the Tampa Bay Rays from 2006-2014, leading the cellar-dwellers to the World Series in 2008 (where they lost the Phillies) as well as three other playoff appearances, before becoming the Cubs manager ahead of last season. Like Francona he hasn’t been afraid to pull the trigger on making moves, but may have to lean on his starting pitching more than his counterpart.
Is it ‘Believeland’ all over again (after the NBA’s Cavaliers success), or is it finally ‘This Year’. We’ll find out soon enough.
My pick: Cubs in seven.
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