With Saturday night's 7–2 victory at Wrigley Field, the Indians took a commanding three games to one lead in the World Series and moved within one win of the franchise's first championship since 1948. For all of their dominance since Opening Day, the Cubs now have their backs to the wall and a whole lot of history working against them, but they also have ace Jon Lester taking the mound against Trevor Bauer, the most vulnerable of the Indians' three starters.
So You're Saying There's a Chance
Via WhoWins, just five out of 44 teams trailing three games to one in a best-of-seven World Series have come back to win. That's 11.4%, slightly lower than one would expect if each remaining game were a 50/50 tossup (12.5%). Here are the five teams:
1925 Pirates over Senators
1958 Yankees over Braves
1968 Tigers over Cardinals
1979 Pirates over Orioles
1985 Royals over Cardinals
The Yankees, Tigers and latter-day Pirates are the only ones from among the 22 teams down three games to one who came back to win Games 6 and 7 on the road. Expanding the search to consider League championship Series history as well, three other teams (again out of 22) have come back from three games to one to win on the road: the 1985 Royals over the Blue Jays; the 2003 Marlins over the Cubs (as if Chicagoans needed a reminder); and the '04 Red Sox over the Yankees.
Meanwhile, the Cubs are now 2–13 in World Series games played at Wrigley Field, still looking for that first win since 1945. It's entirely possible that the fans who waited a lifetime for the Fall Classic to come to the Friendly Confines will have to watch the opposing team celebrate on their field, and by now, there's no way that the Cubs can wrap this up at home. That said, it's not like this team is incapable of reeling off a three-game winning streak with some combination of Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks taking the ball. Via Ted Keith, the Cubs had five three-game stretches in which that trio all collected wins, including two in that order in August, albeit against much lesser teams than the Indians (the A's and Padres).
Of course, anyone paying attention to Cleveland sports during the past calendar year knows that the Cavaliers themselves came back from down three games to one in the NBA Finals, but there's been no word at press time as to whether the Cubs have been able to entice LeBron James or even Kyrie Irving into signing a contract.
The Pitching Matchup
Lester's Game 1 outing was the shortest of his last nine postseason turns dating back to Game 5 of the 2013 ALCS. He lasted just 5 2/3 innings and allowed three runs on six hits and three walks, striking out seven. He got into his biggest spot of trouble in the first inning, as the Indians took advantage of his reluctance to throw over to first base on pickoff plays and ground balls to score two runs on a single, a stolen base, two walks, an infield hit (a swinging bunt by Jose Ramirez to the left of the mound that Lester went nowhere near) and a hit by pitch. In all, Lester threw 26 of his night's 97 pitches in that inning. He was more effective and economical the rest of the way, allowing five more base runners, with only the first of Roberto Perez's two homers causing him damage, but even that was too much.
Still, Lester has been the team's most effective starter this postseason, with a 1.69 ERA in 26 2/3 innings through four starts. He owns a career 2.60 postseason ERA in 124 2/3 innings and a 1.35 ERA in 26 2/3 World Series innings. The Cubs could use a longer outing from him, as their bullpen has been rocked for a 5.02 ERA in 14 1/3 innings in the World Series, with Aroldis Chapman and Pedro Strop the only two of their six relievers used who haven't been charged with a run; Chapman's thrown only 2 1/3 innings, Strop just 1 1/3. Chapman (2.61 ERA in 10 1/3 innings), Travis Wood (3.00 ERA in six innings) and Carl Edwards Jr. (1.69 ERA in five innings) are the only Cubs relievers with ERAs of 3.00 or better in the postseason, and they account for just 43% of the Cubs' innings out of the bullpen. The unit as a whole has a 3.96 ERA and 22% strikeout rate in 50 innings this October.
As for Bauer, he's totaled just nine innings in his three postseason starts, allowing five runs, 12 hits and four walks and striking out nine. He returned from his bloody, abbreviated LCS start to throw 3 2/3 innings in Game 2, with six hits and two walks leading to just two runs. That's of a piece with the 25-year-old righty's second-half work; after pitching to a 3.30 ERA and 3.53 FIP prior to the All-Star break, he was dinged for a 5.36 ERA and 4.52 FIP afterward.
Of course, Bauer isn't likely to stick around long. Manager Terry Francona would just as soon get into his bullpen, which has pitched to a 1.69 ERA with a 32% strikeout rate in 48 postseason innings and a 1.72 mark with a 30% strikeout rate in 15 1/3 World Series innings. With Andrew Miller (0.50 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 17 innings) having pitched in both Games 3 and 4 for a total of 44 pitches (27 on Saturday night), Francona suggested that his imposing lefty might serve as the team's closer for Game 5, with Cody Allen—who last pitched in Game 3—taking the multi-inning middle relief role, as he did in Game 3 of the ALCS, when he pitched 1 2/3 scoreless frames in the seventh and eighth innings. Allen hasn't been scored upon in 10 postseason innings, striking out 18. Bryan Shaw, who's coming off arguably his best postseason appearance in Game 3 (1 2/3 innings, no runs) and Dan Otero (one scoreless inning and 15 pitches in Game 4) both could be part of Francona's plan as well, if things go right.
While this World Series hasn't seen a ton of offense, the Indians have decisively outhit the Cubs, batting .248/.338/.388 with four homers to Chicago's .204/.273/.299 with one homer. The gap between the two teams has been especially acute when it comes to runners in scoring position: The Indians are 6-for-26 with six walks, two homers and eight strikeouts; the Cubs are 5-for-37 without an extra-base hit and just two walks and 17 strikeouts.
For the Indians, most of the damage has been done by their 2-3-4 hitters, who have combined to bat .362/.429/.489. Jason Kipnis (5-for-17 with three extra-base hits) and Francisco Lindor (7-for-15 with two walks) have been constants in the second and third spots, with both Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana hitting cleanup. The latter went 3-for-4 with a solo homer in Game 4 and figures to be in the lineup one way or another in Game 5, whether Francona keeps him at first base at Napoli's expense or repeats the leftfield experiment from Game 3. Santana is 3-for-11 with four walks in the series, and Napoli is 2-for-11 with a pair of walks. The only Cleveland hitters who have been colder are Lonnie Chisenhall (1-for-13) and Rajai Davis (1-for-11 with a walk).
Meanwhile, several Cubs have yet to get going in the World Series, namely Bryant (1-for-14 with three walks), Javier Baez (2-for-17 with six strikeouts), Addison Russell (2-for-15 with a walk) and Willson Contreras (1-for-13 with two walks). Ben Zobrist (6-for-16 with two extra-base hits) and Anthony Rizzo (4-for-14 with a pair of doubles) have been the team's most potent bats aside from Kyle Schwarber (3-for-8 with a double and two walks), who's been relegated to pinch-hit duty with the series in Chicago. With Lester on the mound, Contreras will likely yield to David Ross behind the plate; he went 1-for-3 in the opener and is 3-for-14 with two extra-base hits in the postseason. It remains to be seen whether Jaosn Heyward gets a start in rightfield; he’s 4-for-35 overall in the postseason but did single twice against Corey Kluber in Game 4.
Manager Joe Maddon didn't even get Schwarber into Saturday night's game, bypassing the chance to have him pinch-hit for John Lackey to lead off the home half of the third and fifth innings when the team trailed 3–1. Understandably, he wanted to save Schwarber for an opportunity with a man on base, but once the deficit had expanded to three runs, he was unwilling to call the slugger's number in place of Contreras or Russell in the sixth inning following Rizzo's double. Bet on him to be more aggressive with Schwarber this time around.