By James Fegan
This is not where the Cleveland Indians wanted to be.
While they have prepared all along for their fire-breathing ace Corey Kluber to be ready to go in Game 7, it was always a last resort. And while the underdog Indians would have gladly taken a shot to play one game for the championship if it was offered to them at the start of this World Series, they also knew that their best series was a short series: a lightning assault where they grabbed quick early leads, flooded the Cubs with their trio relief aces and steered away from their stark depth disadvantage.
Instead, they will be hoping to get a starting pitcher working for the third time in nine days through a gauntlet of a Cubs lineup that might be fully coming to life, after Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell combined for 11 hits, three home runs and all nine RBI Tuesday night. That pitcher is still Corey Kluber, and the Cubs’ immediate annihilation of the Indians in Game 6 means they were able to hold out Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen to form the longest bridge possible in Game 7, but the Indians have still waded into a long series with an impossibly deep opponent and can feel their once charmed path to a shocking upset closing up on them.
For their part, the Cubs are prepared to flaunt their rotation depth in the finale and start a fully rested Kyle Hendricks, who led the NL in ERA lest we forget. But did they wear out their own bullpen to get to this point?
Two days after Aroldis Chapman used 42 pitches to face 10 hitters and record eight outs (all season highs) under immense pressure to protect a one-run lead Sunday night in Game 5, Joe Maddon shockingly turned to him again with a five-run advantage to finish the seventh, pitch the eighth, and start to ninth even as the Cubs pushed their lead to seven in the top half of the inning Tuesday.
Burning the hyper-dominant closer would be one thing, but it comes when would-be setup guys Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have struggled mightily and have clearly been unable to regain Maddon’s trust after late-season injuries. Carl Edwards has electric stuff; Justin Grimm is if nothing else healthy; and Mike Montgomery has been productive in a swingman role. But all would seemingly take a backseat to more heavy lifting from Chapman in a Game 7, do or die situation, and he may be running on fumes by then.
If there’s a solace to this, an all-consuming reason to swipe away concerns about needlessly extending Chapman in a blowout win, and bringing him in to get Francisco Lindor in the seventh in a moderately tense situation when Travis Wood and the .128/.208/.239 line he held lefties to in 2016 was available, it’s that Wednesday is Game 7.
There are no real limitations. While Edwards might have trouble forcing his way to high-leverage relief situations, Jon Lester on his normal throw day certainly won’t. For a game that even Tuesday starter Jake Arrieta offered his help, there certainly are no future concerns for which to preserve Chapman, and if the Cubs are going to request an extraordinary workload out of anyone, it might as well be the most powerful reliever in the sport, the one they traded a bounty of prospects just to have in this moment.
In stretching Chapman, the Cubs may be mirroring Cleveland, riding their top stars even at the point of exhaustion. But with so much at the line, both teams would rather die with their best than lose not knowing if they still had something left.
Game 7 of the World Series is tonight, first pitch at 7:00 p.m. on FOX39 and WSCR AM670. Television coverage begins at 6 p.m.