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Will Joe Maddon regret playing Aroldis Chapman in Game 6?
4:28 | MLB
Will Joe Maddon regret playing Aroldis Chapman in Game 6?
Wednesday November 2nd, 2016

Watch Game 7 of the 2016 World Series live on Fox at 8 p.m. ET or stream it on Fox Sports Go by clicking here.

CLEVELAND—At around midnight tonight, the Cubs or Indians will be World Series champions. This fact alone will change how America gets through the day. Thousands of work hours will be wasted, hundreds of car keys will be misplaced, many tears will form, and hundreds of heartbeats will speed up as fans search frantically for the least fashionable shirts in their closets on the grounds that they are “lucky.”

The Cubs will win. The Cubs have to win. This has been their year since last year. They were anointed last November, slow-danced with history all summer and just erased a 3–1 series deficit with the worry-free joy of kids in the schoolyard. They have Kyle Hendricks starting Game 7 and Aroldis Chapman ready to finish it. They’ve got this.

But the Indians’ Corey Kluber has been even better than Hendricks. And Andrew Miller has been at least as dominant as Chapman.

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You’re right. Never mind. The Indians will win. The Indians have to win. It’s Cleveland’s year, in the only way that Cleveland could ever have a year: with stunning upsets over the best teams in two sports (Cubs, meet the Warriors) and a little heartbreak mixed in (Browns, meet your therapists).

On second thought, and third thought, and fourth thought ... fine, we have no idea who will win. But the last game of this Cubs-Indians World Series is the surest goosebump-inducer you’ll ever see in sports. How often do you watch a game and know that whatever happens, you will remember it for decades?

Besides, isn’t this the dream of every kid who picks up a bat? Haven’t we all stood in the yard and been both hero and announcer? Game 7, crowd going crazy, here’s the pitch, and…

“No, I wasn’t that guy,” Cubs leftfielder Ben Zobrist said. “I never even thought about playing professionally. I didn’t think that was a possibility for a little kid from Illinois. That dream kind of happened over time.”

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Ben, buddy, that would be the worst FOX promo in history. You’re killing us here. Let’s try this again.

Kyle Schwarber?

“Put yourself in Game 7, 3–2 count, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded,” Schwarber said. “You always hit the homer.”

Even if you play for the Cubs. Or the Indians. Especially if you play for the Cubs or the Indians.

“Why wouldn’t it come down to a Game 7?” Cubs ace Jon Lester asked. “You’ve got 100-and-something years (for the Cubs), and you’ve got whatever it is for them, 70 years, 60 years … we can’t tie. Somebody’s got to win.”

I thought Lester might add that this is the biggest sporting event since the United States was formed between two and four hundred years ago, an event we celebrate every year in early July-ish. It’s actually been 108 years for the Cubs and 68 for the Indians.

Normally, we’d say we can’t wait for a Game 7. But that seems kind of silly right now.

The city of Cleveland’s last Game 7 was in June, when the Cavs stunned the 73-win Warriors in Oakland. That game will forever be remembered in Cleveland for three plays in the final two minutes: LeBron James’s block; Kyrie Irving’s three-pointer; and Kevin Love’s defense on Steph Curry. That is how most of us watch basketball. We know that coaching tweaks matter, but we tend to forget those. Athleticism and skill resonate.

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Baseball is different. There are great players in this series—Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo … we could go on. But the game is infused with so much tension, and unfolds at such a slow pace, that we often remember the moment something didn’t happen.

Sure, this Cubs-Indians Game 7 could be defined by a home run, like the one Joe Carter hit in 1993, or an epic pitching performance, like Madison Bumgarner’s in 2014. But it is just as likely that we remember a misplay in the field or a reliever who is left in for one batter too many. We may remember a slow roller that the third baseman couldn’t pick up, or a throw to the plate that is just off-target.

In baseball, every mental mistake is crushing; every managerial decision is dissected. That is why Game 7 actually seemed to start in the third inning of Game 6, when Addison Russell hit a grand slam to give the Cubs a 7–0 lead. As well as Jake Arrieta was pitching for Chicago, and as great as that Cubs’ defense is … well, the fans at Progressive Field still believed the Indians could win, but who else really did?

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Cubs manager Joe Maddon did. That is why he made the first move of Game 7 in the seventh inning of Game 6. He called on his closer, Aroldis Chapman, to protect a 7–2 lead. Chapman threw 20 pitches before leaving with a 9–2 lead in the ninth.

You don’t see that every day—or year. Chapman will still be available for Game 7, but you have to wonder if he can be as effective for as long as he would have been. So when Cleveland manager Terry Francona said of his team’s loss, “At least Chapman had to pitch,” the truth is: No, he didn’t. It even surprised the Cubs.

“Probably not what I was (expecting),” David Ross said, “but I’m the backup catcher. They don’t ask my opinion over there.

Will this matter? Nobody knows. We do know this: The game’s first two chess pieces will be the two starters, Hendricks and Kluber. Hendricks led the National League in ERA. Kluber has been Bumgarner-ing his way through October. But Kluber will be pitching his third game in nine days, and the young Cubs sounded very confident Tuesday night—respectful, but confident.

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Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo: “We made good adjustments on him last time.” Schwarber: “We feel like we’re in a good spot right now.”

Sometimes an ace is so far into batters’ heads that he knows their e-mail passwords. As great as Kluber is, this does not feel like one of those games.

There is a reason that most American playoff series are best-of-seven affairs. One game can be a fluke. Best-of-three results can be random. But over seven games, the better team should emerge. It doesn’t always happen, especially in baseball. But it looks like it may be happening here.

The Cubs are the better, more complete team right now. Maybe that would be different if Cleveland star Michael Brantley and starters Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco were healthy. They are not.

The Indians are down to a three-man pitching rotation, which meant that Josh Tomlin had to pitch Game 6 on three days' rest and that Game 7 will be Kluber’s third game in nine days. Tomlin has had a nice career (any major league career is a heck of an accomplishment), but he should not be pitching postseason games on three days' rest. That’s the territory of Bumgarner or Clayton Kershaw. Tomlin has a 4.58 career ERA; it was 4.40 this season. If you take a man with a 4.40 ERA and make his job harder, what do you expect to happen?

Francona did this because he had no choice. He had no choice either but to hand Kluber the ball in Games 1, 4 and 7. You do wonder, though, if the Cubs’ top-to-bottom talent will finally win in the end.

Two years ago, Bumgarner said he would throw “200 pitches” against Kansas City in relief in Game 7, even though he pitched two days earlier in Game 5. He ended up throwing 68 pitches over five shutout innings.

Lester could be the Cubs’ Bumgarner. His career postseason ERA is 2.62. Like Bumgarner, he knows how many pitches he would like to throw in Game 7: Zero.

“Hopefully nothing weird is needed,” Lester said. “Hopefully Kyle is Kyle and the guys that have gotten us all year are called upon and I can keep my happy little butt right there in the dugout and not worry about anything.”

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Well, okay, but hey, you know, what about—

“I’ve put myself in the bullpen a couple of times in the past and it’s different down there,” Lester said. “It’s a different feel. You never really get comfortable. It’s an uncomfortable feeling being down there.”

Lester said that of course he would do what Maddon asked. But he would rather see Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop move the baton from Hendricks to Chapman.

Lester has been so good in the postseason that maybe he could throw three shutout innings in relief. But “comfort” is clearly an issue for him. He does not feel comfortable fielding or throwing to first base, which is why Maddon probably won’t call on him with runners on base. As a starter, Lester is a virtual lock to pitch well. Out of the bullpen, he is an unknown. With Miller and Cody Allen, the Indians know what they have from the sixth inning on. Do the Cubs?

The only thing we could say for sure, as that 7–0 Cubs lead turned into a 9–3 Game 6 win, is that momentum means nothing. It is baseball. Oh, maybe momentum meant something in the 2004 ALCS, when the Red Sox forced Game 7 after losing the first three games to the Yankees, or when the Mets beat the Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. In both situations, one team seemed beaten before Game 7 started.

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This is not like that. The Indians were supposedly too beat up to make it this far. They have been underdogs all series. They have the highest level of confidence in Kluber. They just happened to lose two games in a row.

Francona joked that he was so excited for Game 7, he might wear his uniform home from Game 6. Schwarber promised that the Cubs’ drought will not affect nerves: “We don’t have to worry about our clubhouse or anything like that.”

Ross, who will retire after this game, said going out in a Game 7 is “scary in one sense and kind of cool in another. Who would have thought when we would be here, Game 7 of the World Series?”

Actually, with all of the Cubs hype, it seemed like needing seven games to win the World Series would be a disappointment. That was silly, of course. The best teams often do not win in baseball. But the two best teams will play for the championship. This is the Cubs’ year or the Indians’ year. But it can’t be both.

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