It’s here. Game Seven. The moment we all dreamt about while playing wiffle ball in the backyard is going to materialize in front of our eyes in a matter of hours. And after 176 years of collective angst, a certain city in the northwestern corner of America is going to be swept up in indescribable pandemonium. Here’s how the Cubs make sure that party goes on in Chicago and not in Cleveland.
Two viable Cy Young contenders will be toeing the rubber tonight in what will likely be a career/life-defining moment for either one. Kyle Hendricks vs Corey Kluber, once again on short rest.
The restricted rest period has been the achilles heel for the past two Indians starters, but let’s be honest, Kluber is in a different tier than Trevor Bauer or Josh Tomlin. He absolutely gives the Indians the best chance to win… on short rest, long rest or no rest.
He openly dislikes the nickname of “Klubot” bestowed upon him by the media, but it fits like a glove based on his track record. The 2014 AL Cy Young Award Winner will be facing the Cubs for the third time in just a 10-day window, which would lead you to believe that a scalding-hot lineup would have a decided advantage here.
Over the regular season and the post, 12 pitchers have had the misfortune of starting against the North Siders three or more times. I take quite a bit of pride in cultivating the data to produce the following stats:
Starters in Third Start vs Cubs (Regular & Postseason)
12 starts, 1-6, 52.2 IP, 49 ER, 8.45 ERA, 13 HR allowed, 1.46 K/BB ratio
As expected, the Cubs have FEASTED in this scenario. It’s only a matter of time that a lineup of this caliber makes a few adjustments against you, regardless of how you performed in your first few appearances. This cannot be understated; especially in a restricted time period.
Granted, none of the guys who struggled against Chicago the third time around are named Corey Kluber… although that group does contain some guy named Madison Bumgarner.
So how has Kluber faired in the same situation? He had four starts facing the (mostly) same lineup, including a third start against Toronto in the ALCS. Brace yourselves:
Kluber in Third Start vs Opponent (Regular & Postseason)
4 starts, 3-0, 27.1 IP, 4 ER, 1.33 ERA, 2 HR allowed, 3.10 K/BB ratio
…yeah. About that…
Now, this stat line comes with caveats: none of these lineups (save for the Blue Jays) had their entire season on the line when going up against Kluber, and the Twins, Royals and Tigers don’t exactly pack the same punch as a Cubs lineup clicking on all cylinders.
Kluber also never went shorter than 6.1 innings in any of those starts; you’d have to think that it’s a long shot to see him for that long on three-day’s rest. Make your celebration about that tidbit short lived, though, lest Andrew Miller and Cody Allen see you.
There’s no two ways around it: Kluber is nails.
His last two starts, both wins, against the Cubs in this series serve as enough evidence. He’s allowed just 1 ER over 12.0 innings will sending 15 guys to the pine by virtue of strikeout.
This is a guy who got stronger as the season progressed, and pitches aggressively from the start.
But therein lies a crack in his armor.
On the first pitch of at-bats this season, opponents are hitting .339 against him with 5 home runs, tied for the most homers allowed on any single pitch scenario of an at bat this season.
It’s not as pronounced, but Kluber also follows the mold of Bauer and Tomlin in that he “struggles” (if you could call it that) in the first three innings of an outing before kicking into another gear. Opponents are hitting .026 higher in the first third of the game with a .686 OPS.
While those numbers aren’t astounding, they can serve as a foot in the door for the Cubs, provided they strike early once again. It appears to be easier to do that when the lineup is taking early swings while Kluber is still establishing his fastball.
On the flip side, we have someone with an opposite repertoire but produces the same results: Kyle Hendricks.
The MLB ERA leader has been the baby-faced assassin this fall, allowing just 3 ER over 20.2 IP. It’s clear that no moment is too big for his methodical approach; his crowing moment to this point came in the NLCS clincher where he pitched into the eighth inning while scattering a pair of hits to help bring home the pennant.
In retrospect, Joe Maddon’s decision to use a four-man rotation instead of just three in the World Series has paid off in spades. I’ll take Kyle Hendricks on full rest any day of the week and twice on Wednesdays, even though you probably won’t be able to tell the levity of the moment by looking at his face while he’s on the mound.
This season, Hendricks has been notoriously filthy against righties, holding them under .200 and allowing a .305 slugging percentage. I would say you can expect the lefty outfield to be on display again for the Tribe, but Tyler Naquin literally played himself out of the lineup with his defense last night. Look for Cleveland to opt for Rajai Davis, who can be an x-factor if he gets on base (especially if Jon Lester makes an appearance out of the pen).
But Kyle has been the picture of consistency in terms of success against him in various situations: he’s posted eerily similar numbers regardless of times through the order, position in the order, or number of pitches thrown. And he’s been able to replicate his dominance on the road, albeit with a lower strikeout rate.
The key for Kyle will simply be to maintain the status quo. Much easier said than done, yes. But as long as he keeps Davis off the base paths and gets in an early groove, you can ride this guy into oblivion.
But lets play devil’s advocate and imagine a scenario where both teams are forced to dig into their bullpen. Here’s where the real fun starts.
As I mentioned yesterday, all hands will be on deck. I would not be shocked one bit if Lester, John Lackey, or maybe even Jake Arrieta get the ball for at least one batter in a crucial spot. None of these guys are going to throw a ball again until sometime in January, so there’s no reason to hold anything back tonight.
And that goes double for Aroldis Chapman. In a perfect world, you won’t be seeing Chapman in the seventh inning like we have the past few days. But just because he’s thrown 62 pitches over his last two outings doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one last sprint to the finish left in that cannon of an arm.
It’s not as if this workload is unprecedented for him, either. There was a time when he was in Cincinnati that the Reds tried making him a starter. And per MLB.com, Chapman’s all-time high pitch count over a four-day span was 83 last July while he was still with the Reds. Interestingly enough, those pitches came against the Indians and the Cubs.
Simple math shows that he has at least a 21-pitch buffer before we get into the land of the unknown.
Offensively, the key will once again be early and often. The Cubs caught a major break in the first inning yesterday that opened the flood gates; it’s not wise to expect a similar gift to be handed out by a World Series caliber team on consecutive days.
It’ll be tough sledding against Kluber, that’s for sure. But we’ve seen this lineup explode in this fashion before and ride the aftershock for days on end. Just a few days (seems like years) ago in the NLCS, the Cubs exploded for 10 runs in Game 3 before taking on 13 more over the course of the following two games.
And I don’t know about you guys, but something tells me Kyle Schwarber hasn’t made his most significant impact on this series just yet. I can already envision a late-inning situation with him at the plate against Cody Allen. You can imagine the rest.
Defense won’t be the only x-factor in this game, though it could prove to be the nail in the coffin for either team. But any mistake today can be encompassed by the insane amount of pressure that comes with this scenario. I actually think being on the road works in the Cubs’ favor tonight, because any little miscue could send the fans at Progressive Field into an awkwardly silent panic that could weigh heavily on the home team.
And this isn’t just conjecture: at this stage of the game, crowd involvement is absolutely crucial. It almost seems like the tone that gets set early in the ballgame becomes either the fast track to success or Mt. Everest. In the regular season, you play through to the end and get ready for tomorrow. This time, there literally is no tomorrow.
In some odd way, I could never imagine it coming down to this; I could simultaneously only imagine it coming down to this. It’s borderline impossible to capture the true feeling and emotion of what all Cubs and Indians fans are going through right now, so big props to the media for doing what they do.
Many lives will be changed forever in a matter of 54 outs.