Don’t talk to me about momentum. The Cubs may win tonight’s Game 7, but if they do, it won’t be because they have momentum. Go ask the 2014 Royals what momentum is worth. They faced elimination at home in Game 6 that year and trounced the Giants 10-0 that night. The next day they were Madison Bumgarner‘d and the Giants won their third World Series in five seasons. Go ask the 2005 Astros how badly momentum hobbled them in the playoffs. One game after Albert Pujols allegedly demoralized them with that famous homer off of Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the NLCS, all they did was win and punch their ticket to the World Series.
Which is to say that, no matter how excited Cubs fans are and no matter how anxious Indians fans are, anything can happen tonight. A six-month, 2,400+ game season and a monthlong postseason tournament all comes down to a few brief hours in Cleveland, Ohio in which a single mistake or a single bit of deft execution will be far more likely to impact the outcome than some amorphous concept like momentum. A concept which, whenever it is claimed to exist, like it was constantly after Game 6 of 2014, never has its meaningless explained when it fails to deliver.
If we’re going to attempt to break down and preview the events of the most random and unpredictable event in sports — a single baseball game — we’re far better served to look at the players involved than superstitious nonsense like momentum. So let’s do that, shall we?
It begins with him and may very well end with him. The Cleveland ace is 2-0 and has allowed only one run in 12 World Series innings. It’s his second straight start on short rest and we saw what short rest did to Josh Tomlin last night, but Kluber is a far better pitcher than Tomlin and the 2016 postseason has been his showcase. He’s 4-1 with a 0.89 ERA, eight walks and 35 strikeouts in 30.1 innings this postseason overall. Thirteen men have won three games in previous 111 World Series. Kluber seeks to become the fourteenth and the first since Randy Johnson in 2001.
Hendricks led the NL in ERA in 2016 and he didn’t allow any runs in his Game 3 start last Friday, but his command was not as spectacular as it usually is — he allowed six hits, two walks and hit a batter in that game — and he only lasted four and a third innings. He dodged bullets there, but he can’t turn in another performance like that one tonight and expect to survive, especially considering that Joe Maddon inexplicably used Aroldis Chapman for multiple innings last night. Unlike Kluber, however, Hendricks is on full rest. If he’s in late regular season form tonight, he’s Corey Kluber’s equal and we could have an epic pitchers duel on our hands between two Cy Young contenders. If he’s shaky, we’ll probably know pretty early.
The Indians relief ace has pitched exclusively in Cleveland wins. By design, of course, as he has been a virtually indestructible bridge between the mid and late innings for Terry Francona. We’re going to see Miller regardless tonight, Indians lead or otherwise, but if Cleveland is winning when it comes to the fifth or sixth inning and if Kluber has done anything but cruise, expect Miller to turn in his longest appearance of the year in the most important game in which he has ever pitched.
The Cubs’ offensive star was only 2-for-17 in 21 plate appearances heading into last night’s Game 6, but he went 4-for-5 last night and homered for the second game in a row. A batter heating up has more basis to it than a team having momentum, so that could be a good sign for Chicago. A lot of those hitless at bats before, however, came courtesy of Kluber, who hasn’t surrendered a safety to Bryant and has struck him out three times in eight at bats.
His stuff is perhaps the most electric in all of baseball, but he does not have the track record his former teammate, Andrew Miller has, as far as stamina goes. Joe Maddon used Chapman for eight outs in Game 5, and went with him in the seventh inning again in Game 6, allowing him to finish that frame pitch the entire eighth and begin the ninth. Chapman was a starter a long, long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away, but his pitching stamina has never been tested quite this much. If it’s close late, we’re going to see what Chapman is made of.
All Hands on Deck
Cleveland has a clear plan: Kluber-to-Miller-to-Cody Allen. If they are able to do that, it likely means that the Indians are about to hoist a World Series trophy. If they have to deviate from that, it probably means they’re in trouble. The Cubs, however, are a bit more fluid in this department. Jon Lester and John Lackey are each going to be available out of the bullpen and Joe Maddon using them doesn’t necessarily mean that the cause is lost. He would love to get a long start out of Hendricks and have the bats tattoo Indians pitching, but if the game is within even three or four runs, expect Maddon to get a workout walking to the mound to change pitchers.
SUMMARY: Indians fans have to be on edge. They had a 3-1 series lead that has now evaporated and they were stunned early in Game 6. There is such a history of heartbreak in that fan base — as well as knowledge, thanks to this year’s NBA Finals, that a 3-1 lead can easily disappear — that they have to be feeling pretty gloomy today. Many of them are probably worried about stuff like momentum, even if they’re putting on a brave face right now.
But momentum is bunk, the Indians have their best pitcher on the hill tonight and they have their relief assassin, Miller, fully rested, fully armed and fully operational. The past two games may have seemed like nightmares to them, but with a respectful nod to the inherent randomness that is a single baseball game, there’s a good argument that the Indians have a slight edge in Game 7. If they lose, it’s because they got beat, not because they were doomed to that fate.
I picked this series to go seven games and the Cubs to win it. With one game left I feel like it’s OK to ignore that and say that, on this night, given what we’ve seen in this series thus far and where each team stands at the moment, that Cleveland is going to close the deal.