CHICAGO - This Cleveland vs. The World thing seems to be working out pretty well. But underdogs? Hardly.
Disposing of the Red Sox and Blue Jays was no fluke. Those were two supposedly better teams, with more offense, more pitching and anything else you might want to throw on the pile. Big Papi’s farewell tour, the intimidation factor of Rogers Centre. Whatever.
Conventional wisdom pegged the Indians as the plucky AL Central champ with October’s most versatile weapon in Andrew Miller, but not enough star power to knock off the bigger boys.
Until that’s exactly what they did, and now it’s the Cubs’ turn. The Indians’ 1-0 win in Game 3 Friday night put Cleveland up two games to one in the series, and if Joe Maddon and Co. aren’t careful, this World Series could be over before they realize what happened.
In heading back to Wrigley Field, all the talk was about the World Series returning to the North Side for the first time since 1945. The overflowing bars, the $100 cover charges, the neighborhood swelling with unfathomable crowds. Everyone traveled to Chicago hoping to witness history during these middle games, but now there’s the very real possibility it could be far different — and more disappointing — than the version they had planned on.
That’s because the Indians, again expertly piloted Friday night by Terry Francona, beat the Cubs at their own game, by their own rules, in their own park. So Carlos Santana has to play leftfield despite never starting a game there? Fine. Miller’s on a timer because he’ll eventually need to be pinch hit for? No problem. Francona subbed for him with Coco Crisp, whose RBI single drove in the only run.
Name the NL-mandated obstacle, and Francona had an answer for it. He used 17 players on his 25-man roster and escaped Wrigley — with a 14-mph wind blowing straight out to Waveland — towing a 1-0 victory. Shouldn’t have happened. Just like the first two rounds of these playoffs. And yet it did.
“Yeah, that was agonizing,” Francona said. “We had Santana playing leftfield — that’s not a leftfielder. So that’s one move. Then we pinch ran for our catcher. We needed to win that game in nine or [Corey] Kluber was going to end up hitting at some point.”
Kluber as in the Indians’ ace scheduled to start Saturday night’s Game 4. And Francona was only half-joking. This is the World Series. The end of the line. In a scoreless tie, do whatever possible to keep it that way until you get a lead, then do everything within your power to hold it. If that means pulling starter Josh Tomlin after 4 2⁄3 scoreless innings and only 58 pitches, so be it. Some may think going to Miller in the fifth left the Indians vulnerable later on, but Francona’s philosophy has been to worry about problems when they surface, not before.
Maybe Maddon did force Francona’s hand by sending up lefthanded-hitting pinch hitter Miguel Montero in the fifth — with a runner at second — daring him to pull Tomlin for Miller. But Francona didn’t mind blinking in that staredown. Miller got Montero on a sharp liner to rightfield, then struck out the side in the sixth against the top of the Cubs’ order. Funny thing was, when Miller had to be replaced by pinch hitter Crisp, it turned out to be the most serendipitous move of the game.
“I just thought he did what he was supposed to do,” Francona said. “If he wouldn’t have come up to hit, maybe we would have sent him back out. But I was OK with where we were there. That was plenty.”
Sure, why not? Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen finished it up, just as Francona planned. The fact that Francona has been pushing the right buttons all October isn’t coincidence, or luck. While the Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948, Francona has two rings on his resume as the manager who beat the 86-year Curse of the Bambino with the Red Sox.
Think he’s rattled by the Cubs? Well, neither is his team.
“I think our clubhouse is loose, regardless of any situation,” Crisp said. “We come in the same way.”
And usually go out winners.