“Game Seven” is easily the best phrase in sports. But the Cubs need to get through Game Six to find themselves in that situation. Coming off one of the best games in recent memory, a 3-2 classic at Wrigley Field, the Cubs have the momentum heading back to Cleveland. Here’s what to watch for tonight.
- The Starter Matchup: Speaking of momentum, it’s often said come playoff time that your momentum is as good as your starting pitcher. Tonight, it’s Josh Tomlin on short rest vs Jake Arrieta. On paper, this looks like the clear upper hand goes to the Cubs. But this isn’t your “typical” start on short rest for Tomlin. The righty only had to throw 58 pitches last time out, and… well, this is the World Series. Nothing is typical anymore.
How many times can Cleveland go to this well before they get snake bit? That remains to be seen. Tomlin will be the third Indian’s starter to lace it up on short rest, but to his credit, he’s handled an erratic work schedule very well this season. Multiple injuries in the rotation and a family emergency threw his schedule for a loop in the regular season, but Tomlin still posted a 2-1 record and a 1.69 ERA over his final five starts. He’s dovetailed that nicely into the postseason to the tune of a 1.76 ERA through 15.1 innings of work so far.
To find the last time Tomlin went on three day’s rest, you have to go all the way back to July of 2010, the second start of his big league career vs Toronto. The result? 5.1 innings of one-run ball, only allowing a solo-homer while striking out five en route to a win.
On the whole, this is pretty impressive stuff for a guy who doesn’t touch 90 on the radar gun very often. However, in his only start against the Blue Jays (also at Progressive Field), Tomlin missed his location on quite a few breaking balls that Toronto simply couldn’t capitalize on. I don’t expect the same outcome if he does the same tonight.
Tomlin will have a short leash regardless, especially considering how well-rested the Indian’s pen is (more on that in a second). But as with Trevor Bauer, the bulk of Tomlin’s problems lie in the first few innings. Opponents are hitting him to the tune of .317 with a .911 OPS in the 1st inning this season. And his righty/lefty splits resemble your typical right-handed pitcher; righties had a much better time hitting off Tomlin this season (.299 with 22 HR vs .229 with 14 HR).
Willson Contreras will get the nod behind the plate in part for this reason, although you could argue David Ross and all of his intangibles would serve well in a moment like this.
On the other side, the reigning NL Cy Young winner hopes to match his last start in Cleveland… and then some. Arrieta took a no-hitter into the 6th inning, but shortly after that was snapped, an elevated pitch count ended his night.
Outside of that complete game shutout he tossed against the Pirates last postseason, Arrieta’s playoff numbers are somewhat pedestrian, allowing a 4.98 ERA and never going longer than six innings since then. Add to that the heavy predominance of left handed bats in the Cleveland lineup: lefties hit .308 against Arrieta in the regular season and cut his strikeout/walk ratio by over half (3.96 vs righting, 1.78 vs lefties).
However, Arrieta seems to be the inverse of Tomlin in that he starts strong. He’s held opponents near a .170 average and .260 OBP the first two turns through the order this season. But the Cubs are going to need that success to last a little longer tonight given their bullpen situation.
A caveat to these statistics: Arrieta’s last start came on a typical fall day in Cleveland. It was bitter cold, and he waited over half an hour in the dugout between innings at one point while the offense drove up the score. He’s openly admitted that he’s lost feel for pitches at times this season, namely his cutter. I’m sure a 40 degree night didn’t help his cause.
Tonight will be much more temperate, so I expect him to be able to find his “stuff” much easier. Plus, this is a high-leverage situation, and Jake is the type of guy who thrives in this scenario.
The Cubs need to get to Tomlin early to set the tone, and likely need Arrieta to go deep. As odd as this sounds, this matchup is nearly a push, with a slight edge going to Arrieta since he’s had no-hit type stuff multiple times in his career and can seemingly bring that out at a moment’s notice.
- The Bullpens: The ace in the hole for Cleveland this postseason figures to be exactly that tonight. Despite the loss in Game Five, Terry Francona was able to save valuable bullets in the form of Andrew Miller. Expect The Kraken to be released early tonight.
You don’t need numbers to know how well Miller has pitched this postseason, but here they are anyways: 9 appearances, 17.0 innings, 8 hits, 4 walks, 1 HR, .111 average against, 0.53 ERA. Righty/lefty splits are irrelevant.
In a word: goofy.
Miller has entered as early as the 5th inning multiple times this postseason; expect him to be ready ASAP provided Tomlin’s track record of early struggles.
Also expect Cleveland to play Game Six with a Game Seven mindset: like there’s no tomorrow. There’s no secret that they want to end this thing before getting to a winner-take-all scenario, so all hands will be on deck.
For as much attention Miller gets, Cody Allen is no slouch either. And guess what? He wasn’t used in Game Five either. Expect Miller and Allen to both be available for multiple innings tonight and tomorrow, if we get there. This makes it even more imperative that the Cubs score early.
For the North Siders, Aroldis Chapman tied the second-most pitches he’s ever thrown in an outing in a virtuoso performance en route to an eight-out save that no one will soon forget. The problem there is how that may impact how long he can go tonight.
The bridge to Chapman has been a point of contention all season for the Cubs, and that hasn’t exactly changed in the playoffs. While the pen (save for Chapman) is almost as rested as Cleveland’s, it’s going to be tough sledding for whoever is called upon to make the transition from Arrieta to Chapman.
Expect to see a healthy dose of Mike Montgomery, the innings-eating lefty who has been a bit of a bright spot for the Cubs this offseason. He’s already logged 13.0 innings in nine appearances, and he’s given up one or fewer runs in eight of those appearances. From a matchup perspective, he can be a nightmare for the lefties that Cleveland will likely load the lineup with to face Arrieta.
It’s easy to see how this game can turn into a chess match when the bullpens get involved.
Cleveland has the clear edge here, but that’s much more of a commentary on how good they’ve been versus how bad the Cubs have been (because for the most part, they haven’t been).
- Lineup Depth: It’s odd to think a National League team would benefit from playing American League rules, but the Cubs definitely fit that category. With the return of the #Schwarrior (lets get that trending on Twitter), the Cubs have the potential to be a modern-day version of the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row of the early 1900’s.
The problem all postseason has been getting the group in a grove at the same time. For a stretch in the NLCS, the lineup was coming through top to bottom, and the Cubs had a few blowouts to show for it.
However, in the World Series, a few big contributors have hit pronounced slumps. Before Kris Bryant’s homer in Game Five, he was 1-14. Willson Contreras is still 1-14. Addison Russell is 4-19. Javier Baez is 3-21. Something’s gotta give.
With the injection of Kyle Schwarber back into the lineup, it undoubtably becomes much more menacing. This is the type of group that feeds off of each other, so it is crucial for the guys up top to serve their roles as table setters and force Cleveland’s pitchers to face the middle and bottom third of the lineup with runners on base.
Surprisingly, Jason Heyward seems to have found a bit of a rhythm. Since an absolute rocket of a line out in Game Two, he’s gone 3-9 (.333) and has swiped three bases. Not to mention his outstanding defensive play, which is a factor regardless of what he does with the bat.
If the bats get rolling early, watch out.
For the Tribe, their depth is almost a built-in attribute. Three of their best hitters, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez, are all switch hitters. This reduces the need for Francona to remove them late in the game for better matchups against different pitchers.
However, the surrounding pieces don’t provide nearly as much punch as the Cubs lineup does. Tyler Naquin, Lonnie Chisenhall and Coco Crisp are all lefties who figure to get the start against the righty Arrieta; they’ve combined to go 4-25 (.160) with 1 RBI and 8 strikeouts.
The x-factor here will be Jason Kipnis. The (kinda) Chicago kid got hot for a bit earlier in the series, enjoying a stretch of going 5-12 (.416) with a homer and 3 RBI before going hitless in four tries in Game Five.
His splits favor playing at home, and most of his power comes against righties (16 of 23 HR this season came of right-handers).
As the second hitter in the lineup, he’s tasked with quite a bit. Arrieta will need to keep him quiet early and keep the bases clear for the middle of the order.
My overall take on this game is clearly shaded by bias, but I have every reason to believe the Cubs can pull this out. They’ll have to score early to circumvent Cleveland’s biggest advantage, but if any lineup can do it, it’s this one.
As we saw in the NLCS and at times in this World Series, the hits and runs come in bunches. The Cubs live on the big innings; I expect at least one tonight.
For what it’s worth, I was talking to Tim Kurkjian before Game Five when the Indians had their first opportunity to end the series at Wrigley. After touching on the game ahead, he paused and said “you know, this can’t end tonight. It’s too simple. This will go a full seven games.”
I tend to agree with him.
A final word: Yes, tonight will be intense; duh. But at risk of sounding exactly like Joe Maddon, don’t let the pressure ruin the fun of taking this game in. Take a deep breath. Savor every second. Consider it good experience for next postseason. And the next one. And the next one.