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World Series Preview: Forget the curses. Buckle up for a close Fall Classic

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but it’s been a long time since either the Cubs or the Indians have won the World Series. Indeed, the last time either franchise stood as baseball champions, the concept of writing contrived articles trying to contextualize how long it has been since either franchise won the World Series had yet to be invented!

Those were dark times, indeed. It was a time when superstition stood prominent over reason and we were so backwards that we believed in black magic and curses and things. So glad we stand now, at the vanguard of human history, not believing in such nonsense any longer.

OK, I guess a lot of people still like that stuff. We’ll allow it for now, we suppose, and we’ll do our best to bite our tongues when someone who is smart enough to know better decides that curses about goats and 60-year-old trades and comparative anachronism have more to do with who will win the 2016 World Series than the relative merit of a bunch of guys born in the 1980s and 1990s do. Enjoy baseball however you need to.

In the meantime, we’ll be over here thinking about this year’s Fall Classic as a competition between two excellent teams who themselves are not likely thinking about history.

Let’s break ’em down:

OFFENSE:

The Cubs had the second best offense in the National League, but I prefer not to count the Coors-inflated Rockies’ offense against the Cubs. They scored 4.99 runs a game and hit 199 homers on the year. While that was a nice show of power, their real offensive strength was getting on base, leading the NL in on-base percentage at a .343 clip. The Cubs take their walks and bash the heck out of the ball. Other than the pitcher’s slot and, when he’s starting, the curiously and perpetually-slumping Jason Heyward, there are no easy marks here.

The Indians offense a bit of a different beast. They too were second in their league in run scoring, but were far down on the AL home run list. They were third in average, fourth in OBP and fifth in slugging. It was a pretty balanced attack overall, with good totals in most categories. Their key advantage over the Cubs — and everyone else in baseball for that matter — is on the base paths. The led the AL in stolen bases and had the lowest caught stealing percentage. They likewise shine when it comes to taking the extra base, going first-t0-third and that sort of thing. Not that they’ll have to rely on small ball, however: Cleveland has hit 11 homers in the postseason to the Cubs’ 12.

As is always the case, the DH rule will work to the AL team’s disadvantage. The Indians have the home field advantage but in 2-3 games in Chicago, they will have to sit either Carlos Santana or Mike Napoli while the pitcher bats, playing the other at first base. The Cubs, meanwhile, can add any bat they choose while in Cleveland. Some have suggested that maybe Kyle Schwarber will be that bat. Even if it’s not him, though, the NL team never loses a key player in the AL park.

PITCHING:

The Cubs have had the deepest rotation in baseball all season long. Jake Arrieta won the Cy Young last year and Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester will likely both finish in the top three this year. John Lackey has been less-than-stellar this postseason, but he certainly is capable and experienced. The Cubs had the best pitching in the NL this year and it wasn’t particularly close. And that’s before you remember that they have Aroldis Chapman waiting to lock things down late.

As with offense, Cleveland’s pitching is a varied attack. Corey Kluber is an ace and has seemed to find another gear this postseason. Beyond him, however, things get kinda interesting due to injuries and inexperience. Trevor Bauer’s cut finger and the stitches thereon are question marks, but he’s had several days off now and should be OK for Game 2. Josh Tomlin, the Indians’ third starter, has had his moments but he is homer-prone. The X-factor for the Indians may be rookie Ryan Merritt, who was strong in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays. The Cubs aren’t as weak against lefties as a lot of teams, but they are more vulnerable against southpaws than righties, so Meritt’s slow junk which has not been heavily scouted as of yet might give them some trouble.

The real key for the Indians pitching, of course, is the bullpen. Particularly Andrew Miller, who manager Terry Francona has shown he will call on at virtually any time and whom he will ride for a couple of innings even on back-to-back days. With a couple of days off built in for postseason travel and the “there is no tomorrow” vibe of the World Series, look for Tito to call on Miller and closer Cody Allen early and often and look for the Indians pen to shorten games in a manner not seen in baseball for a long, long time. That is, if the Indians can snag early leads. Either way, Cleveland’s bullpen is clearly superior to Chicago’s. They’ve struck out 41 batters in 32.1 innings this postseason, with Miller being damn nigh untouchable.

DEFENSE:

A lot of the Indians’ improvement this season over last came by virtue of an improvement in their defense. Depending on which measure you use, Cleveland’s D was either excellent or merely good, but they were top five or ten by most metrics. The Cubs, meanwhile, were fantastic with the leather by every measure, leading all of baseball in both defensive efficiency and Defensive Runs Saved. If you’ve been reading this site for a while you know that we’re somewhat skeptical of a lot of defensive stats and aren’t super conversant in others. We do, however, give respectful, holistic nods to what both the stats and they eyeballs tell us and it’s hard to argue that Chicago has not been superior defensively in 2016. Neither team is likely to make major mistakes or blunders, but if one does, it could make a big difference because the odds of both teams showing up with iron gloves are extremely low.

MANAGERS:

Two of the best in the business go at it in this series. Joe Maddon has gotten more press than Terry Francona over the past couple of years, but Francona has built a Hall of Fame resume leading the Red Sox to two World Series titles and leading the Indians back to the postseason this year. Each are willing to be unconventional at times — Francona’s aggressive use of the pen has been notable this year — and neither shoot themselves in the foot. There are a lot of moving parts to a baseball game and any number of ways a team can win or lose, but it’s not likely that one of these teams prevail because either manager out-managed the other.

PREDICTION:

There is a consensus that this is the Cubs’ World Series to win. I tend to think they will as I tend to think they’re the better overall team, but it’s by no means a given. Partially because no possible outcome in any World Series is a given in light of the small sample size of games. The 1954 Indians won 111 games in a 154-game season and got swept out of the World Series, after all, and there are countless other examples of favorites losing and putative teams of destiny failing to fulfill theirs.

But it’s also the case that these two teams aren’t as unevenly matched as some have suggested. As we see above, the Cubs have the better offense, but the allegedly small-ball Indians have socked homers this postseason. The Cubs have a clear rotation advantage, but the Tribe’s bullpen has been a total game-changer. The Indians run like mad and could pressure those Cubs starters in ways no one has pressured them thus far in October. Each club has a fantastic manager. Anything can happen in a seven-game series and the Indians seem better prepared to give the Cubs fits than either the Dodgers or the Nationals did in the NL playoffs.

But if I have to pick one, I’ll go with the crowd and pick the Cubs. I think it’ll take everything they have however, and if the Indians do win this thing, it will by no means be an historic upset. For now, though: Cubs win in seven games.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Phillies 6, Dodgers 2: Rhys Hoskins drove in four. The first one came on an RBI single off of Yu Darvish in the sixth. The next three came in an epic at bat against Pedro Baez in the sixth in which Baez threw Hoskins ten straight fastballs in the high 90s. Baez got Hoskins to a full counts and Hoskins fouled off four straight pitches before delivering a bases-clearing double. The Phillies, one of baseball’s worst teams, have now beaten the Dodgers, the team with baseball’s best record, on two straight nights when they trotted their two best pitchers out to the mound in Clayton Kershaw and Darvish. This is why no one is a guarantee to do anything in the postseason, by the way. If a team like the Phillies can put you down 0-2 despite you going with your aces, anyone can. And if you’re down 0-2, there’s a great chance you’re not making it to the next round.

Red Sox 1, Orioles 0: Bupkis until Jackie Bradley Jr. scores on a Brad Brach wild pitch in the 11th inning for Boston’s second straight 11-inning win over the O’s in a row. Before all of that  Drew Pomeranz and Kevin Gausman tossed six and a third and eight innings, respectively, of shutout ball. Gausman, who retired the first 14 batters he faced, deserved better. Boston has won 10 of 13.The Orioles have lost 11 of 13.

Brewers 1, Pirates 0: Domingo Santana hit a solo home run off of Trevor Williams in the top of the fourth for the game’s only scoring. Chase Anderson tossed six shutout innings for Milwaukee, struck out eight and didn’t walk a batter. The Brewers won for the ninth time in 11 games and, because of the Rockies’ loss, are now only one game behind the Rockies for the second Wild Card.

Blue Jays 5, Royals 2: Marcus Stroman allowed one run over seven innings to snap a personal five-game winless streak. Darwin Barney drove in three, the first two coming on a two-run shot to open the game’s scoring. Alex Gordon hit baseball’s 5,694th home run in 2017 in the top of the eighth inning, setting a new single-season record.

Cardinals 8, Reds 7: Big night for Dexter Fowler, who hit a game-tying homer in the eighth inning and a go-ahead double in the 10th. He’d then come around to score on an error by the Reds to give the Cards a two-run margin, which was necessary given that Scooter Gennett hit a homer in the bottom of the tenth that would’ve otherwise tied the game again. Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong also homered for St. Louis.

Marlins 5, Mets 4: The Marlins rallied for three runs against their old friend A.J. Ramos in the ninth to tie things up and force extras and then J.T. Realmuto hit a walkoff solo homer in the bottom of the tenth. After the game Don Mattingly said that he knew they could get to Ramos:

“We’ve seen him have innings like that,” Mattingly said. “He gets himself in a little bit of a mix and usually gets out of those.”

Am I the only one getting the “dude talking smack about his ex-girlfriend after he sees her out with another guy but is trying not to sound upset” vibe here?

Cubs 2, Rays 1: Seven straight wins for the Cubs, this one as Joe Maddon makes his return to Tropicana Field for the first time since leaving the Rays for the Cubs. If this is also an ex-girlfriend thing, the Rays were much bigger men about it, giving Maddon a video tribute and all of that before the game. Maybe it’s more like the quintessential “California Divorce” where everyone stays friends and stuff. God, who does that? Anyway, Cubs starter Mike Montgomery took a no-hit bid into the sixth inning, Kyle Schwarber hit his 28th home run of the season.

Nationals 4, Braves 2: Max Scherzer allowed two runs on five hits over seven and struck out seven. Only seven? He must’ve been sick. He did cross the 250 strikeout threshold, however, and he did avenge last week’s loss, also to the Braves, in which he gave up seven runs. It’s the fourth straight year he has struck out at least 250 batters. he’s only the fourth pitcher to ever do that, following Ferguson Jenkins, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. Nope, Nolan Ryan never did it. You can look it up. Ryan Zimmerman drove in two to give him 101 RBI on the year.

Astros 3, White Sox 1: Jose Altuve homered and drove in two and Alex Bregman hit an RBI double. Collin McHugh allowed one run over five and four relievers finished the job.

Yankees 5, Twins 2: CC Sabathia allowed Minnesota to load the bases on his first four pitches, including two bunt singles, which likely ticked him off. He got out of that jam and then worked from behind for a bit, but ultimately righted the ship and went six inning, allowing the two runs on six hits with one walk and five strikeouts. Brett Gardner drove in a couple. That’s nine of 11 for the Yankees. The Twins have lost four of five, but remain a game and a half ahead of the Angels who . . .

Indians 6, Angels 4: . . . lost to Cleveland. Everyone loses to Cleveland, though, right? That’s 25 of 26 wins for them, in fact. Jay Bruce had a triple and a double among his three hits and Austin Jackson singled four times. Mike Clevinger allowed one run over six.

Athletics 9, Tigers 8: The A’s were down 8-5 in the eighth when Jed Lowrie hit a go-ahead grand slam. The A’s were down by four runs at one point, in fact, but no lead is safe when you’re the Tigers. Oakland’s Matt Olson homered for the fifth straight game and has 15 dongs in his last 21 games. As I wrote yesterday, you really should be paying attention to this guy.

Rangers 3, Mariners 1: It was 1-1 in the eight following a Martin PerezMike Leake pitchers’ duel. That’s when Carlos Gomez hit a leadoff double, Shin-Soo Choo hit a sac fly to plate the go-ahead run and Elvis Andrus knocked in Delino DeShields with a single for some insurance. DeShields wasn’t just an innocent bystander, though. He reached on a bunt that put Will Middlebrooks, Gomez’s pinch-runner, on third and in position to score on Choo’s sac fly.

Padres 6, Diamondbacks 2: A.J. Pollock hit two homers, including a leadoff blast, but Padres starter Travis Wood settled down and allowed only the two runs over six innings. He also (all together now) drove in two runs himself on an RBI single in the bottom of the third to give the Padres a 5-1 lead.

Giants 4, Rockies 3: The Rockies held an early lead but the Giants tied it and won it with a walkoff sac fly from Hunter Pence. Fun thing about that: the Rockies were playing a five-man infield, leaving only two men in the outfield, so Pence’s fly ball had a really good chance of dropping for a hit. And, given that it was a walkoff situation, it made no difference to the outcome of the game whether the ball was caught or not. Carlos Gonzalez ran hard to catch it, though, almost certainly out of instinct, turning it into a sac fly instead. I picture Pence and Gonzalez on the dinner speech circuit one day, long after they retire, beefing or bragging about that play to the laughter of crowds.

Report: Blue Jays and Marco Estrada nearing agreement on contract extension

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Jon Morosi reports that the Blue Jays and starter Marco Estrada are nearing an agreement on a contract extension. The deal is expected to be for one guaranteed year, Morosi adds.

Estrada, 34, was set to become a free agent after the season. He earned $26 million on a two-year contract signed with the Jays in November 2015. While the right-hander has a subpar 4.84 ERA on the season, he has a solid 170/67 K/BB ratio in 176 2/3 innings and has looked much better since the end of July. Between July 31 and his most recent start on Saturday, Estrada owns a 3.75 ERA.

J.A. Happ is the only other starter technically under contract with the Jays next season. Marcus Stroman will be eligible for his second year of arbitration and the Jays will certainly agree to give him a raise on his $3.4 million salary for the 2017 season. The Jays will likely be active this offseason in adding rotation help and they’re starting early by locking up Estrada.