Just A Bit Outside: The Pennant

by Sam Stockton | 10/24/16 12:10am

“As sure as God made green apples, someday the Chicago Cubs are going to be in the World Series.”

-Harry Caray, 1991

For Chicago Cubs fans, Oct. 22 was someday. At this point, baseball fans are well aware of this narrative. In 1908, the Cubs won their second straight World Series. They haven’t had another one since. The last time they did win, sliced bread had yet to be invented, and the league’s highest paid player, the Cleveland Indians’ Nap Lajoie took home $8,500 for the season.

The last time the Cubs even played in a World Series was in 1945, eight years before Ernie Banks became the first black player to suit up for the Chicago Cubs. When Dexter Fowler leads off on Tuesday night in Cleveland, he will be the first black man to appear for the Cubs in a World Series game.

It was a 5-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers that put the Cubs up 4-2 and sent the team to their first World Series in 71 years, through a game that felt over by the end of the first inning. Fowler led off with a ground rule double, Kris Bryant singled him home and two batters later, Bryant scored on a sacrifice fly by Ben Zobrist. It was 2-0, Cubs, after one inning. The Dodgers kicked off another offseason filled with questions, starting with its ace Clayton Kershaw, who turned in another disappointing October start on Saturday night, giving up five runs and seven hits in five innings of work. Going against Kershaw was Dartmouth’s Kyle Hendricks ’12, who played, in a word, magnificently. He went seven and a third, striking out six and not allowing any Dodger offense to subsist.

With one out in the top of the ninth, Yasiel Puig hit a soft ground ball to Addison Russell, who flipped to Javier Baez, the National League Championship Series co-MVP, for one out, before Baez fired to Anthony Rizzo at first for the double play.

Just like that, generations of Cubs fans got goose bumps. Strangers embraced. The broadcasters at Wrigley Field blared Steve Goodman’s “Go Cubs Go” (1984). The Cubs entered the World Series.

The obvious comparison for these 2016 Cubs is the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who broke the city’s 86-year World Series drought. However, I find this comparison problematic.

Boston’s drought was characterized by heartbreak. Rival stars Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone continued homering. Bill Buckner whiffed on that groundball in 1986.

The Cubs’ drought has been different. Sure, there have been moments of intense heartbreak. The 1984 Cubs collapsed against the San Diego Padres, losing three straight when they were just one win away from a title.

In 2003, the Cubs were once again one win from the World Series, only to lose three straight, the last two in Wrigley, before falling to the Miami Marlins. However, for most of their prolonged championship drought, they haven’t even been competitive with hundred loss seasons like in 2012, feeling much more like the standard than the disappointment of ’84 or ’03.

Now, it is time for the Cubs to do what they’ve been doing all season: ignore history and focus on the task at hand. It’s time to consider their match-up with the Cleveland Indians, which pits baseball’s two longest championship droughts against one another. Both are four wins away from ending; only one will claim the prestigious title. The Indians’ last title was in 1948, only 67 seasons as opposed to 107, but certainly nothing to scoff at.

Cleveland is red hot. They have lost just one game this postseason, having swept the Red Sox in the Divisional Round before beating the Toronto Blue Jays in five to clinch the American League Pennant.

They have a dangerous lineup, dominant bullpen and a crafty manager in Terry Francona, who boasts two World Series rings to his resume. These Indians are a team that should be taken seriously.

But make no mistake, these Cubs are the class of the Major Leagues. Its line-up and rotation are deeper than any other team in the league. The team plays as tight a defensive game as any team in the league. Built around closer Aroldis Chapman, the bullpen is more than capable of slamming the door on a tight game. While manager Joe Maddon may not have a World Series victory to his name yet, he made all the right moves this season, knowing exactly how to keep his team simultaneously loose and focused all season.

To make matters even scarier for Cleveland, the Cubs head into the World Series with white hot bats. After back-to-back shutout defeats in games two and three, the Cubs won their next three by a combined score of 23 to 6. Bryant, Rizzo, Zobrist, Russell, Baez and Willson Contreras are all locked in at the plate, seeing the ball well and driving it consistently.

Lester will get the ball on Tuesday, pitching on full rest and guiding the North Siders in its first World Series to be televised in color. He will be followed up by Hendricks, reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. There is not a team in baseball that can match that rotation.

It’s a best-of-seven. Anything can happen. In October, each win is harder to get than the last, but I don’t believe in the curse of Billy the Goat. I believe in timely hitting, strong starting pitching and stingy defense. Cubs in five.