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World Series Game 7 Preview: There is no such thing as momentum

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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?

Corey Kluber

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.

Kyle Hendricks

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.

Andrew Miller

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.

Kris Bryant

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.

Aroldis Chapman

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.

 

Two injured MVPs is a major bummer for baseball

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Last week Christian Yelich‘s season ended with a fractured kneecap. At the time he went down he was neck-and-neck with Cody Bellinger — I think a tad behind, though people may reasonably differ — and, at least by my reckoning, a hair or three above Anthony Rendon, Ketel Marte and Pete Alonso in the race for the NL MVP Award. As I wrote last week, I think that means Bellinger is going to walk away with the hardware when the winner is announced in November. Yelich’s injury will prevent him from making a late season surge to surpass Bellinger, but I think it would’ve taken a surge for him to do it.

Over the weekend we learned that Mike Trout’s season is over as well. He’ll be having foot surgery to deal with a nerve issue causing him pain. At the time he went down he was the clear frontrunner to win his third MVP Award. Unlike Yelich, I’m pretty sure Trout will still win the trophy. Sure, Trout hasn’t played since September 7, meaning that he’ll miss more time than Yelich will, but strained articles stumping for alternative candidates notwithstanding, his lead in the MVP race was more secure.

Trout’s 2019 ends with him setting a career high in homers with 45 and slugging percentage at .645—both of which lead the American League. He likewise leads the league in on-base percentage (.438), OPS (1.083), and in both Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs’ versions of WAR at 8.3 and 8.6, respectively. With just under two weeks to go it seems likely that Jorge Soler of the Royals will pass Trout for the home run lead, but he’s not an MVP candidate himself. Alex Bregman will likely pass him in walks. Trout seems pretty certain to finish with his lead in all or most of the other categories intact. That’s an MVP resume even if he’ll only have played in 134 games. To give the award to anyone else would be an exercise in narrative over reason. Something born of a desire to reward a guy — like, say, Bregman — for playing on a winning team as opposed to his individual accomplishments. Sure, voters are allowed to do that, but they’ve mostly eschewed such tendencies in recent years. It’d be a surprise if they backslid.

Even if Yelich’s and Trout’s injuries aren’t likely to radically change the MVP race — again, I think the NL’s was Bellinger’s to lose — they’re both still lamentable separate and apart from the fact that all injuries stink. Lamentable in a way that, unfortunately, creates a downer for baseball as it gets ready for the postseason.

The Brewers won the game in which Yelich went down and have won four of five since then. In so doing they have remained close in the race for the second Wild Card and currently stand one game back. They also have an insanely favorable schedule the rest of the way, exclusively facing the weak sisters of the National League in the Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies. Even so, it’s no gimmie — those Reds and Rockies games are on the road, and Great American Ballpark and Coors Field makes those bad teams better — and the reward at the end of this is likely to be a one-game play-in. You want your best player in any and all situations and the Brewers don’t have theirs. And won’t, even if they make the postseason and even if they win the Wild Card game. Having one of the game’s brightest stars on crutches for the playoffs is not something anyone at the league office wants.

The Angels have no such postseason concerns and haven’t had them for most of the season. Once again they’re terrible. As they have been for almost the entirety of Trout’s career. They’ve made the postseason only once in his career — back in 2014, losing the LDS in three games — and do not appear poised to put a winner on the field any time soon. Trout is still in his prime, obviously, but like all players he’ll either slow down or break down eventually. Given the state of the club, I’m not sure I’d put a ton of money on them being good, let alone consistently good, while Trout is still the best or even one of the few best players in baseball. The upside to me seems to be an Al Kaline situation with the Tigers, in which the team finally put it together behind him only after he began to age and miss time to injuries. Having the best player in baseball outside of the playoffs looking in is not something anyone at the league office should want either.

Yet here we are.

Injuries happen. Every contender is missing at least one and in some cases several important players. But for one MVP candidate to miss the postseason this year and another one to miss the postseason every year is a major bummer for a league that has a tough go of it marketing itself even under the best of circumstances.