Terry Francona

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.

Showing no panic, Cubs shift pressure onto Cleveland and force must-see Game 7

Showing no panic, Cubs shift pressure onto Cleveland and force must-see Game 7

CLEVELAND – Just get back to Cleveland. Even at the lowest point of their season, the Cubs sensed the building World Series narrative would flip if they could force a Game 6. The Indians would suddenly feel a different pressure and weight of expectations. 

Just like that, the Indians unraveled on Tuesday night at Progressive Field, looking a lot like those outdated perceptions of the Cubbies and bringing back memories of their franchise’s tortured history. With a dominant 9-3 victory that created little drama or suspense given the stakes, the Cubs forced a must-see Game 7.

It will be Corey Kluber vs. Kyle Hendricks on Wednesday night, the only guarantee being one championship drought (68 years) or the other (108 years) will end, turning Cleveland or Chicago into a mixture of Times Square on New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. 

“There’s no tomorrow after tomorrow,” Anthony Rizzo said. “You lose, you go home. You win, you’re a hero.”

As oblivious to history as these Cubs can sometimes seem to be, they also have an innate understanding of how ridiculously talented they are now. Down 3-2, there would be no need to panic, with time to go trick-or-treating with the kids built into the travel itinerary before a Halloween night flight out of O’Hare International Airport. 

The longer this World Series went, the more the young Cubs could get acclimated to the overstimulation and slow down their at-bats. It meant a patient lineup would see more pitches and a get a better feel for Cleveland’s plan of attack.

It didn’t take long this time. A “Let’s go, Cubs!” chant broke out in the sellout crowd of 38,116 with two outs in the first inning when Kris Bryant launched Josh Tomlin’s 0-2 curveball 433 feet into the left-field seats. Rizzo and Ben Zobrist’s back-to-back singles off the finesse right-hander started the “TOM-LIN! TOM-LIN!” chants.

Addison Russell – who dressed up as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle for Halloween and made another splash on social media – then lifted a catchable flyball out toward right-center field. Lonnie Chisenhall cut over from right while Tyler Naquin charged in from center and the ball fell in between them. Hustling all the way from first base, Zobrist delivered the forearm shiver to Roberto Perez, knocking over the Cleveland catcher. Zobrist stood up screaming and smacked Rizzo’s hand.

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“Look, it’s been 108 years since this organization has won,” Zobrist said. “If we’re going to come back and win (from) down 3-1, then what better way to do it?”

At some point, Cleveland’s thin pitching staff would make more mistakes. Future Hall of Fame manager Terry Francona couldn’t push the right bullpen button every single time within this matrix of decisions. The deeper, more talented team could impose its will.

With Tomlin in trouble in the third inning, Francona summoned reliable right-hander Dan Otero to face Russell, who took two pitches before crushing the next one over the wall in left-center field for a grand slam. The Cubs handed Jake Arrieta a 3-0 lead before he threw his first pitch, and the Cy Young Award winner had a 7-0 lead by the time he gave up his first hit leading off the fourth inning.

Arrieta earned his second World Series win by pitching into the sixth inning, and that’s another reason why the Cubs didn’t overreact, expecting Jon Lester to take care of business in Game 5 and positioning ERA leader Kyle Hendricks for Game 7.  

“It kind of allows you to take a deep breath and say: ‘Hey, we’re still very much in this,’” Arrieta said. “When you look at the circumstances being down 3-1 – and having the guys that we did lined up – it makes us feel a little bit better about it. Whether our offense struggles or not in a particular game, we know that at any point in time, a guy like Addie can hit a grand slam.”

After handling some of the softer spots in the Cleveland pitching staff, the Cubs will now see Kluber for the third time in nine days, with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen reading and waiting to run in from the bullpen.

“We’ve overcome adversity all year,” catcher David Ross said. “Even going back to last year where it was all these things: ‘Could you do this? Could you do that?’ We answered most of those. And then the Mets beat us and you had to hear all about that for a full season, even when you win 103 games.

“It’s always something – I’ve learned that in the game. There’s always something to overcome. It’s always: ‘How are you going to do this? How are you going to do that?’ And this group has answered the bell. It’s in Game 7 of the World Series.”

Indians' Corey Kluber will be ready for World Series Game 7 start vs. Cubs

Indians' Corey Kluber will be ready for World Series Game 7 start vs. Cubs

CLEVELAND — Though he would have loved for his team to wrap up the World Series on Tuesday night, you’d better believe Corey Kluber will be ready for Game 7.

Even though he wasn’t sure he’d be needed again after he helped the Cleveland Indians take a 3-1 series lead with a victory in Game 4 on Saturday night, Kluber prepped for one more start as he normally would.

Turns out the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner will make his third start of the 2016 World Series after all. Courtesy of a 9-3 Cubs victory in Game 6 on Tuesday, Kluber will face Kyle Hendricks in Game 7 at 7:08 p.m. CST on Wednesday.

“In doing all my work it was the same trying to get myself prepared,” Kluber said on Tuesday afternoon. “I’ll be rooting as hard as anybody for us to win tonight. But I think my mindset was I’d rather be prepared and not have to pitch than try to will us to not get to a Game 7 and then not be ready when it comes.”

Kluber has been nothing short of fantastic all postseason and somehow managed to find an extra gear in the World Series. An 18-game winner in the regular season, Kluber is 4-1 with a 0.89 ERA in 30 1/3 innings in the postseason. He has struck out 35 batters and walked only eight.

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Kluber has allowed only one run in 12 innings in two starts against the Cubs, winning both. He has struck out 15 batters and walked one, limiting the Cubs to nine hits.

Despite pitching six innings in both victories, Cleveland manager Terry Francona has managed to keep Kluber’s workload in check. Kluber threw 88 pitches in Game 1 and only 81 in Game 4. Even so, Kluber said he’s spent more time “doing the different methods of recovery.”

“But I still get in the same amount of work in between, it’s just a little bit more condensed. …

“I haven’t found much of a difference yet in the way I feel when I go out there on three days’ rest as opposed to four.”

Prior to this postseason Kluber had made only one appearance on three days’ rest in his career back when he pitched two innings in relief in 2011. Francona said several discussions with Kluber have him of the belief his ace is more than capable of handling the task again.

“Conversations with him, the way he treats his body, the way he works his routines,” Francona said. “I think good players, good pitchers, can do special things. He’s in that category. …

“It was kind of an easy decision after talking to him.”