Joy to the World: Cubs finally end 108-year Series drought

Joy to the World: Cubs finally end 108-year Series drought

CLEVELAND – The End could have only happened like this, with a heart-pounding, jaw-dropping, head-spinning World Series Game 7 that left generations of Cubs fans rejoicing around the globe.

The waves of emotions rippled around Progressive Field after an 8-7 instant classic that began on Wednesday night in front of a sellout crowd of 38,104 and ended here early Thursday morning, the drama building for a massive TV audience watching the last great quest left in professional sports. The heartbreak would be felt throughout Cleveland, which had waited 68 years for this title shot, its fans sitting through 10 innings of motion sickness, false hope and the game at its unpredictable best.

The joyous celebration continued 350 miles away in Wrigleyville and wherever Cubs fans grew up listening to Harry Caray and watching games on WGN and worshipping all the great players who never got to experience euphoria like this, everyone from Ernie Banks to Ron Santo to Billy Williams to Ryne Sandberg to Andre Dawson.

This has always been the intoxicating lure of the Cubs, selling losing to alpha males and convincing all these highly skilled independent contractors/individual corporations that together they could someday be part of the team that makes history and lives forever in all those hearts and minds.

“I know there are so many people that are thinking of their grandfathers and their fathers right now in Chicago, and that’s what it’s all about,” general manager Jed Hoyer said inside a raucous visiting clubhouse filled with the sounds of clanking bottles and the awful smell of beer mixed with champagne. “It’s bigger than these 25 guys. It’s bigger than the organization. It’s about the city that stuck with the team forever.”

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What else could draw rock stars (Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan) and movie stars (Bill Murray, John Cusack, Charlie Sheen) and LeBron James’ Cavaliers into the same spot off Lake Erie? It had been 39,466 days since the Cubs won the 1908 World Series, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and 24,859 days since the Indians won the 1948 World Series.

So what’s another 17-minute rain delay after waiting more than a century?

Hoyer actually described it as “divine intervention,” because the Cubs had been four outs away from their coronation when manager Joe Maddon walked out toward the mound and took the ball from Jon Lester, a $155 million middle reliever in this winner-take-all thriller. In came Aroldis Chapman, the high-speed, high-maintenance rental closer who began to change his reputation by getting 12 outs and throwing 62 pitches in Games 5 and 6 combined. 

But that effort appeared to sap Chapman, who threw 14 straight fastballs to Brandon Guyer and Rajai Davis, with only one above 100 mph. Guyer’s RBI double made it 6-4 before Davis smashed another fastball onto the left-field patio just inside the foul pole for a game-tying two-run homer in the eighth inning.

The Indians wouldn’t just roll over, not with a Cy Young Award winner pitching three times in nine days (Corey Kluber), a bullpen that blew up the idea of conventional usage and a future Hall of Fame manager in Terry Francona. The Indians notched 94 wins and then contained two explosive offenses to get here, sweeping the Boston Red Sox, eliminating the Toronto Blue Jays in five games and running out to a 3-1 lead in the World Series.

No team had come back from that deficit since the 1985 Kansas City Royals, but there was nothing fluky or random about this. Theo Epstein’s front office built the best team in baseball, an Ivy League graduate acing clubhouse chemistry with a mixture of bonus babies, big-money free agents and players overlooked or undervalued in other organizations.

Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” press conference on Oct. 25, 2011 – when the Cubs put his name up in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee – would essentially become the Before and After points in franchise history.

On his last night as a big-league player, David Ross brought out a Game 7 lineup card that featured seven players between the ages of 22 and 27, plus Kyle Hendricks (26), this year’s ERA leader, as the starting pitcher, a dazzling array of young talent.

“It felt like June, May, the way that guys conducted themselves before the game,” said Ben Zobrist, who would become the World Series MVP. “Very similar, very light-hearted, everybody just going about their business, talking the game with each other.

“That, to me, said, you know what, this team’s fine. We’re going to let the talent and the ability take over and stay focused, because no one in here is treating this situation any different than we have all year. And that’s how championships are won.”

Though it remained a pop-culture shorthand and the backdrop to all those TV postcards from Wrigleyville, the Cubs killed that “Lovable Loser” image years ago, with the 2003 team in particular raising the bar after finishing five agonizing outs away from the World Series.

The Cubs finally did it with a hipster manager who enjoys drinking red wine and eating dark chocolate after games, never losing his cool in front of reporters or getting defensive about the second-guessing over how he handled Chapman. Instead of panicking in the face of all this pressure or pretending those immense expectations didn’t exist, Maddon set the tone with “Embrace The Target” T-shirts that literally put bull’s-eyes on their chest.

That’s how Maddon rolls, turning spring training and road trips into made-for-social-media moments, welcoming zoo animals, mimes, magicians and pajama parties. No, the players didn’t universally love all these stunts, but Hollywood couldn’t have invented a better ringmaster for this circus.

For all of Maddon’s camera-friendly charm, the groovy manager still believes in old-school concepts, the hard-hat lessons he learned while growing up in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region. Maddon just gives it a verbal flourish, from “Respect 90” to “the relentless execution of fundamentals and technique.”

Above all, the 2016 team created an environment where you could be yourself and make mistakes and move on from the wacky stuff that usually spelled Cubbie doom. Like Javier Baez committing two careless errors at second base and then leading off the fifth inning by driving a Kluber slider over the centerfield wall and knocking out Cleveland’s No. 1 starter.

Or Lester’s wild pitch bouncing into the dirt and ricocheting off Ross’ mask out toward the on-deck circle and allowing the Indians to score two runs in the fifth inning. “Grandpa Rossy” shook it off and drilled Andrew Miller’s 94-mph fastball out to center field in the sixth inning, touching home plate and bumping crotches with Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler on his way back into the dugout.

So by the time that storm rolled into Cleveland, the Cubs needed that break to regroup and reset a 6-6 game heading into the 10th inning. Kyle Schwarber walked to home plate less than seven months removed from reconstructive surgery on his left knee. The man-child they call “Schwarbs” singled off Bryan Shaw through the shift into right field and the Cubs were off once again.

With pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. on second base, the Indians intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo to get to Zobrist, who knocked an RBI double down the left-field line for the go-ahead run. Third catcher Miguel Montero – who wondered if he would get released this summer – added the insurance run the Cubs needed with an RBI single to make it 8-6.

In the end, this team wore down the Indians and the rest of Major League Baseball, the fans singing “Go, Cubs, Go!” on a wacky, rainy, totally unforgettable night in Cleveland, where no one believes in curses anymore.

“We killed it,” Montero said. “It’s done. It’s over.”

More on the World Series victory

--Finally: The Cubs are World Series champs

--The wait –and the weight- is over: Cubs fans celebrate World Series title

--Barack Obama congratulates Cubs World Series championship

--Famous Cubs fans celebrate World Series title on Twitter

--Ben Zobrist becomes first Cub ever to win World Series MVP

--Numbers game: statistical oddities of the Cubs World Series title

--Jed Hoyer: Rain delay was ‘divine intervention’ for Cubs

--Fans give Cubs a taste of home in Cleveland

--Ben Zobrist delivers exactly what the Cubs expected with massive World Series

--‘Dreams come true’: Bill Murray reacts to Cubs winning the World Series

--Big surprise: Kyle Schwarber plays hero again for Cubs in World Series Game 7

- Ryne Sandberg: World Series ‘made it able for me to live in the present’


Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez


Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?


2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.