CLEVELAND — Consider the target embraced. After a 103-win regular season, and fighting back from what appeared to be certain doom at Wrigley Field, the Cubs are now faced with two choices in Wednesday’s Game 7 of this World Series.
Ultimate triumph. Or crushing heartbreak.
There is no middle ground. No participation trophy. It’s all or nothing for these Cubs, who are tying to become the first team in 37 years, since the “We Are Family” Pirates, to overcome a 3-1 deficit, on the road, for a world title.
Oh, and did we mention 1908? Perhaps you’ve heard.
“We just want to have a sound mind,” said Addison Russell, who hit a grand slam and had six RBIs in the Cubs’ 9-2 rout of the Indians in Game 6 at Progressive Field. “A lot of us are going into [Wednesday] thinking it’s just another game, but we’re going to give it all we have. That’s the approach we’ve been taking this entire season and look where we are.”
And let’s be honest. Who thought the Cubs would get this far after dropping two of three at Wrigley Field last weekend? Raise your hand. Anyone?
No, these Cubs were lined up to fall victim to Terry Francona’s wizardry, the diabolical Klubot, Andrew Miller’s razor-blade slider and the cruel, unrelenting history that buried the franchise’s last crown way, way back in 1908.
It would be the Indians’ turn this year, to end their own drought dating to 1948, to give Cleveland another trophy to put next to LeBron’s. A nice story, sure, for a Midwest city that’s easy to root for. And for the Cubs, there was always next year.
Once this World Series returned to the shores of Lake Erie, however, the dynamic changed and the momentum shifted, just as the Cubs said it would. We nodded along, scribbled down those words, and dutifully relayed them. But to make those sentences come alive was going to require a supreme effort, beginning with a strong statement in Tuesday’s Game 6.
And that’s exactly what the Cubs came up with to even the series and force a Game 7, which, in the sporting world, can be a truly magical event. The stunning part about Tuesday night, however, was the Cubs’ avalanche tilted downhill on one pitch: Josh Tomlin’s 0-and-2 curveball that Kris Bryant hammered for a 433-foot homer with two outs in the first inning.
“Anybody who plays this game grows up dreaming of winning a World Series,” Bryant said afterward. “We get to play in a Game 7. That’s pretty special.”
After Bryant’s blast, it would only get worse. Tomlin, a noted strike-thrower, began teeing it up for the Cubs, and two more hard-hit singles set up an Indians’ gaffe that will live in infamy if they’re not able to finish this thing off. When Russell followed with a lazy fly ball to shallow right-center, that should have been inning over. Instead, it dropped impossibly between the converging Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall — as each one looked at the other.
The screw-up handed the Cubs two more runs, and a gift 3-0 lead for Jake Arrieta, who unlike Tomlin, was well-rested and on top of his game. Maddon couldn’t have scripted this any better. While Francona had been riding a three-man rotation for the World Series, Maddon had his foursome working on a regular schedule, and the Indians were beginning to show cracks over the previous two games.
After Arrieta retired six of the first seven Indians, Russell followed with a grand slam in the third inning to put the Cubs ahead 7-0. Playing for survival was something the Cubs seemed to thrive on.
“It’s beautiful,” Maddon said. “It’s a beautiful thing. We’re trying to win one game. Just go play. Do what we’ve been doing.”
And what they’ve been doing lately. After using Aroldis Chapman for eight outs in Sunday’s do-or-die victory, Maddon went to him with seven outs to go Tuesday night. There’s nothing left to save him for. Winter is now a day away.
“When you get to a Game 7,” Ben Zobrist said, “anything can happen.”
For the Cubs, it would be everything.