CHICAGO — A baseball game can turn for a thousand different reasons, from the logical to the supernatural. There are spreadsheets and scouting reports and spin rates. There are curses and black cats and billy goats. There are bad bounces and zealous fans too eager for a souvenir.
But more than anything else, this game hinges on trust. Trust that the reports are true. Trust that the pitcher will spike a curveball in the dirt. Trust that the catcher will smother it like a live grenade.
This was the only way that closer Cody Allen escaped a tricky ninth inning on Friday night, when the Indians beat the Cubs, 1-0, in the first World Series game played at Wrigley Field since 1945.
“He trusted his catcher right there,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Calloway said of the pivotal pitch in the final at-bat that helped decide Game 3.
With two down and runners on second and third, Allen ended the game with a 94-mph fastball at the letters, blowing it past Javier Baez, the Cubs’ uber-aggressive breakout star. But Allen was in position to attack Baez only because of the trust he showed the pitch before, when he was behind in the count 2-and-1, with the tying run just 90 feet away. To get it, Allen leaned on the body and hands of a catcher who hadn’t played in nearly a month, Yan Gomes.
“It’s very rare that Yan and I aren’t on the same page,” Allen said shortly after spiking the curveball that led to the final out.
As they’ve done throughout October, the Indians’ bullpen carried a heavy load under pressure. When starter Josh Tomlin lasted only 4 2⁄3 innings, Andrew Miller took over for 1 1⁄3 innings of relief, holding the line until Coco Crisp’s pinch-hit RBI single gave the Indians a 1-0 lead in the seventh.
Righthander Bryan Shaw grabbed the baton in the seventh for 1 2⁄3 innings before yielding to Allen with two outs in the eighth.
Allen has not allowed a run in the postseason. But in the ninth, the Cubs threatened to blemish his record.
He allowed a leadoff single to Anthony Rizzo, who was promptly pulled for pinch runner Chris Coghlan. Ben Zobrist struck out and Willson Contreras grounded out to third, bringing the Indians within one out of taking a 2-1 series lead.
But first baseman Mike Napoli got handcuffed on Jason Heyward’s grounder to first, and with Coghlan on third and Baez at the plate, Heyward swiped second. Suddenly, the Cubs had the winning run in scoring position.
At the plate, Baez got ahead in the count 2-and-1.
The Indians could have pitched around Baez, who is hitting .294 in the postseason, but a walk would have loaded the bases for Addison Russell, himself a threat to come through. No margin for error was not a scenario that Allen wanted to face.
“When you load the bases in a situation like that, it can shrink the plate a little bit,” Allen said. “Because when you get behind in the count, you have nowhere to put him.”
So the Indians chose to go after Baez. It was a calculated risk, given that he already has come through with big hits to win postseason games. But for all of the danger that Baez posed, he also featured something that the Indians could count on. He would be aggressive, and Gomes wanted to take advantage of it.
“Baez, he’s been having a tremendous postseason,” Gomez said. “You don’t ever want to give in to him. But he’s also a very aggressive swinger. He kind of swings out of his shoes every time.”
To Gomes, only one pitch made sense. Allen would have been limited had he fallen behind 3-and-1, forced to throw Baez a good pitch to hit. But getting the count to 2-and-2 would open a whole new set of possibilities. The best way to get there, Gomes determined, was to bounce a breaking ball in hopes that Baez would chase.
“That’s his best pitch,” Calloway said. “It looks like a strike for a long time. Obviously, guys are going to be hunting strikes in that scenario.”
Because of a broken hand, Gomes was a last-minute addition to the playoff roster. Until Friday night, he had not appeared in any games, with the Indians leaning upon Roberto Perez. But with Perez pulled for a pinch runner in the seventh, it was Gomes who steered the rest of the staff the rest of the way.
Though he had not played, Gomes filled his time by catching bullpen sessions and simulated games, anything to protect himself from rust.
“I know what I’ve got to do to get myself ready to come into a game,” said Gomes, who did not hesitate to signal for a curveball in the dirt.
Allen obliged. His pitch looked like a strike before the bottom fell out, hitting the dirt just as planned. Gomes lived up to his defensive reputation, moving his body to keep the ball from reaching the backstop.
And Baez? He couldn’t help himself. He tried to check his swing, but he was too late.
Gomes trusted his preparation. Allen trusted his catcher. One pitch later, the Indians won. Baez swung through a heater up out of the strike zone, just beneath his shoulders, a pitch Allen couldn’t have thrown without first evening the count.
With a save in the books and his postseason scoreless streak up to 10 innings, Allen pumped his fist and bounced off the mound. On the other side was Gomes.
“To be able to work with him throughout that last ninth inning and shake hands at the end of the game,” Allen said, “that was awesome.”