The TV screens inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse instructed Cubs players to be dressed by 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, or roughly 90 minutes before first pitch in a World Series elimination game, give or take another commercial break for Fox.
“Don’t change a thing,” Kris Bryant said, and maybe a superstar player who never gets too high or too low is exactly right. Manager Joe Maddon already printed enough T-shirts for these occasions from “Embrace The Target” to “Do Simple Better” to “Try Not To Suck.”
But the Cubs are experiencing a system-wide failure at the worst possible time. The Cleveland Indians crashed their Wrigleyville block party and could be popping champagne bottles and chugging beers as Sunday night turns into Halloween morning.
If a franchise staging its first World Series event since 1945 initially felt like Times Square on New Year’s Eve – as Cubs president Theo Epstein accurately put it – then this feels like the head-splitting hangover.
A 7-2 loss on Saturday night left the Cubs staring at the brink of elimination, trying to become the first team since the 1985 Kansas City Royals to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series.
“I guess our backs are against the wall,” Anthony Rizzo said, “but we’ll come out fighting.”
The All-Star first baseman didn’t make any guarantees this time, not when the Indians have forced this lineup out of its element. Rizzo came through with an RBI single against Corey Kluber in the first inning and doubled off the Cy Young Award winner in the sixth. But otherwise Kluber looks like the World Series MVP, winning Games 1 and 4 while giving up one run in 12 innings and putting up 15 strikeouts against one walk.
This just doesn’t look like the same team that steamrolled the National League on the way to 103 wins and handled the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers in October. As much as Kluber disrupts and freezes hitters with his two-seam fastball and off-speed arsenal, the Cubs still found their way around and through Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw, supposedly the best pitchers on the planet at that moment.
Young players like Javier Baez and Willson Contreras admitted to feeling anxious, wanting to win here so bad that the game accelerated on them. Playing a little out of control would be the side effects to all the energy they provided this team throughout October.
“(We’re) getting outside of ourselves,” said David Ross, who will catch Jon Lester knowing that Game 5 could be his last night before retirement. “They’re having a hard time slowing the moment down – at-bat to at-bat – and staying in what we do best.
“I faced Kluber the other night and I know I chased a few balls outside the zone, so you got to give some credit to the pitcher. But I see a lot of early swings, a lot of 1-2-3 swings.
“We’ve done a real good of putting together lengthy at-bats all year long. And right now, (in) the moment, (it’s) us wanting to do so much for these fans. I really think that’s where it comes from.”
The question isn’t so much if Bryant will be the NL MVP – it’s whether or not the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s vote will be unanimous. But the steadiest player for the team that led the majors in defensive efficiency committed two errors in a second-inning sequence that saw the Indians score two runs (one earned) and take the early lead that would shorten the game with 6-foot-7 lefty Andrew Miller waiting in the wings.
A bullpen that helped the Cubs earn 33 come-from-behind wins allowed the deficit to balloon to six runs by the time Miller gripped the ball in the seventh inning. That meant less urgency and lower stress if the Indians need Miller to bounce back again in Game 5, when lights-out closer Cody Allen will now be rested and ready.
What had been such a patient, grinding lineup made Miller throw all of seven pitches in the seventh inning. It became a garbage-time homer in the eighth inning when Dexter Fowler lined a Miller slider into the left-center field bleachers and scored the first run off Miller during this postseason.
Remember Maddon’s old adage when talking about last year’s New York Mets: To beat good pitching you have to pitch better than good pitching. John Lackey has mostly been a spectator during the “Big Boy Games,” giving up three runs within the first three innings in front of a crowd of 41,706 and putting up a 4.85 ERA in three postseason starts this October.
“There are scouts on everybody nowadays,” Lackey said. “You can’t get away with anything, the way numbers and metrics and all stuff is out there nowadays. You got to be able to make some adjustments. And right now, they’re doing that better than we are.”
The Cubs will draw confidence from Lester starting Sunday night opposite drone enthusiast Trevor Bauer, with Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks lined up for if-necessary Games 6 and 7 at Progressive Field, where folk hero Kyle Schwarber can be the designated hitter. But this is a team that is used to playing from ahead. And the Indians are 10-2 during these playoffs and looking to make their own history.
“We got to win tomorrow,” Rizzo said. “That’s the bottom line. We got to do whatever we can to win the ballgame tomorrow. And that’s it. There’s no looking past that. Do anything we can to win the ballgame. And then we figure it out from there.”