Three Strikes: Kluber, Kipnis deliver in Game 4 to put Indians on brink of title

On short rest, Corey Kluber tossed six solid innings for Cleveland before Jason Kipnis’s three-run homer broke Game 4 open in the seventh. The Indians now have a commanding 3–1 series lead over the Cubs.
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The Indians are one win away from their first World Series championship since 1948. On Saturday night, Cleveland’s offense busted out to stun a sellout crowd at Wrigley Field and drop the Cubs with a 7-2 win in Game 4, giving the Indians a 3-games-to-1 Series lead. Once again led by ace Corey Kluber, Cleveland's pitchers stymied Chicago’s frozen hitters to put a chokehold on the Fall Classic.

Slumbering No More

For all the talk about the Cubs' sputtering offense, the Indians had been stymied as well, scoring just two runs combined in the past two games. But on Saturday, Cleveland put up seven runs that must have felt like 70 after Game 3’s tense 1–0 affair. This one was close early and even featured the Series’ first lead change, with the Indians scoring twice in the second inning to erase an early 1–0 Chicago advantage. Things relaxed significantly in the middle innings, as Cleveland beat up the soft part of the Cubs' bullpen to build a comfortable lead that it wouldn’t relinquish.

Though the pitching of Kluber and stud reliever Andrew Miller and the ultra-aggressive bullpen management deployed by Terry Francona have been the biggest stories of this World Series, another has been the dearth of offense on both sides of the ball. The Indians were hitting just .237 coming into Game 4, albeit with the only home runs of the Fall Classic, both of which came from light-hitting catcher Roberto Perez in Game 1; the Cubs' average was an even more miserable .202. But while Chicago continued to struggle on offense, Cleveland found its stroke, ripping John Lackey and a parade of ineffective relievers for 10 hits, including two more home runs. Both were no-doubters: Carlos Santana’s solo shot in the second tied the score at 1–1; Jason Kipnis’s three-run blast to right in the seventh was the dagger that made it 7–1.

Francona pushed all the right buttons. His choice to start Santana at first base instead of Mike Napoli—relegated to the bench thanks to the National League’s obsolete insistence on making us watch pitchers hit—paid off with three hits. Called upon to pinch-hit in the seventh, Coco Crisp delivered a double to start the three-run rally that iced the game the night after he won Game 3 with an RBI single off the bench. Now Francona, who is 11–1 in the Fall Classic in his career, just has to get his team to win one game out of the next three to clinch his third World Series championship. A newly awoke offense can only help that quest.


I, Klubot

After a Game 1 start in which he struck out nine over six scoreless innings, Kluber was far from perfect in Game 4. He gave up a quick run in the first on a bloop double by Dexter Fowler and a single by Anthony Rizzo. He put a runner on in every inning but the fifth and had to extricate himself from a two-on, two-out jam in the third and a leadoff double by Rizzo in the sixth. He even gave up multiple hits to Jason Heyward, who spent the first two games of the World Series coming out of deep frost in a morgue.

But Kluber was good enough, and that’s all the Indians have needed from their starter in this postseason. A day after getting 4 2/3 shutout innings from Josh Tomlin, Terry Francona got 18 outs from Kluber—working on three days’ rest—before once again subjecting the Cubs to the terror that is Andrew Miller. Just as it did in Game 3, that plan worked again, with the lanky lefty nailing down six late outs—despite giving up a homer to Dexter Fowler, the first run he's allowed in October—to help give the Indians the Series lead.

None of that is to suggest that Kluber pitched poorly, though he wasn’t quite the superman who left the Cubs reeling in Game 1. His two-seamer—a darting, swerving bullet in his first start—was merely average; his slider was eminently hittable. He hung pitches, and two in particular—a deep drive by Ben Zobrist in the first and a scorched fly ball by Fowler in the fifth—might have done more damage (if not left the Friendly Confines entirely) were the wind not blowing in from the outfield.

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Down a run and with Wrigley screaming after Rizzo’s RBI single, Kluber retired Zobrist on that long fly ball to left, then fought Willson Contreras for six pitches before striking him out on a curveball. With two on and the Indians clinging to a two-run lead in the third, Kluber fed Zobrist a steady diet of cutters and curveballs that the veteran leftfielder kept pulling foul. Finally, Kluber threw a curveball by Zobrist to strike him out and end the threat. After Rizzo’s double in the sixth, he got Zobrist to pop out weakly to left, whiffed Conteras on a slider and induced a soft grounder from Addison Russell to third. That was the last batter of the night for Kluber, who gave up just five hits and one walk while striking out six.

Should the Cubs climb out of the hole Kluber has dug for them, they’ll find him waiting in Game 7, ready to bury them for good. He will be again on short rest should the Series reach its final and deciding game. But as he proved in Game 4, short-rest Kluber is still good enough to win.

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Code Red

For everything that went right for the Cubs in the postseason's first two rounds—big hits, late rallies, the Dodgers turning into the Washington Generals in the final three games of the NLCS—little has gone to plan in the World Series. Save for Game 2, when Jake Arrieta bulled his way through Cleveland’s lineup, Chicago has looked nothing like the 103-win juggernaut that was all but anointed as world champions when pitchers and catchers reported last February. The offense has been stagnant; the relief has been anything but; save for Arrieta, the starters haven’t shown much.

Game 4 was a microcosm of Chicago’s series-long issues. Lackey—who you are legally required to refer to as “playoff-tested veteran John Lackey”—struggled to command his fastball early, with the Indians spraying line drives all over the field. He settled down to retire his final eight hitters without incident, but it was far from an inspiring start. The bullpen then put the game out of reach. Oddly enough, despite a deficit in both the game and the series, Cubs manager Joe Maddon stayed away from his top troika of relievers—Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman—and stuck to his less-than-inspiring middle relief options: Mike Montgomery (appearing for the third time in four games and for the second straight night), Justin Grimm and Travis Wood. That trio combined to give up four runs in two innings, with Kipnis’s bomb off Wood breaking things open.

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Not that the Cubs’ offense was up to closing any lead. The opportunities the Cubs were given earlier—and there were more than expected against Kluber—were largely wasted. Rizzo’s RBI single was Chicago’s lone hit with runners in scoring position; aside from that, the Cubs went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts. Among other slumping hitters, Contreras and Javier Baez, sources of youthful energy in the Division Series and the NLCS, have combined for just three hits in 30 World Series at-bats to go with enough embarrassing swings and misses to last a season. Kris Bryant has more errors (two, both on throws in Game 4 and both of which led to runs) than hits (one).

This is not the first hole the Cubs have found themselves in this postseason—recall their 2–1 deficit against the Dodgers in the NLCS—nor the first time they’ve had to rally back from disappointment. But the situation is more dire than it has ever been: a shaky rotation, an offense producing terrible at-bats, a defense making critical mistakes. All of this against an Indians team that puts immense pressure on a defense with its aggressive base running and features a shutdown bullpen that can turn any game into a five-inning affair.

From the seventh inning onward in Game 4, Fox's broadcast was a children’s compendium of sad Cubs fans, each more heartbroken than the last. Chicago must play much better Sunday if it is to have any hope at staying alive. If it doesn't, the title wait will add one more year to its seemingly interminable counter.