Three Strikes: Lester, Chapman lift Cubs over Indians to force Game 6

A three-run fourth inning was all the offense Chicago needed in Game 5, with Jon Lester and Aroldis Chapman holding the Indians down to keep the Cubs alive and send the World Series back to Cleveland.
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The Wrigley Field faithful finally got something to cheer about in this World Series: the Cubs’ first home win in the Fall Classic since Oct. 8, 1945. Their 3–2 victory over the Indians in Game 5 on Sunday night sends the series back to Cleveland for its conclusion, with the Indians still leading, three games to two.

Though Jose Ramirez’s solo homer off Jon Lester gave Cleveland an early lead—and an imposing one, given that it had gone 8–0 during the postseason when scoring first—Chicago rallied for three runs in the fourth, and Aroldis Chapman got the final eight outs for the longest save of his career.

The Hit Parade

Through three innings, Trevor Bauer had one-upped Lester. He retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced, five via strikeouts—four looking—without a walk while allowing only a single to Addison Russell in the second inning. Considering that he was working on three days of rest after lasting just 3⅔ innings in Game 2, Bauer looked particularly sharp. He had a 1–0 lead, and the Indians' bullpen loomed, perhaps after one more complete inning, to try to seal the franchise's first championship since 1948.

But on Bauer’s third pitch of the fourth inning, he left a fastball middle-in to Kris Bryant. The slugger, who to that point was just 1-for-15 without an RBI in the series, clubbed the ball 382 feet over the wall in left-centerfield for a game-tying home run, his first longball since Game 3 of the Division Series against the Giants.

Bryant was barely back to the dugout when Anthony Rizzo tagged Bauer’s next pitch for a double off the ivy in rightfield, just the fourth time all series that the Cubs had put together back-to-back hits. They then made it three straight hits for the first time in the World Series (h/t Scott Miller) when Ben Zobrist followed with a sharp single to rightfield—too sharp to score Rizzo, however. It was Zobrist’s seventh hit of the series, eclipsing his total for the first two rounds of the postseason.

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Bauer jumped ahead of Russell 0–2 thanks to a called-strike curveball and a fouled-off bunt. After taking another curve, Russell hit a soft groundball toward the third base side that turned into an infield single and scored Rizzo with the go-ahead run. Jason Heyward struck out looking at a curve, Bauer’s sixth K of the night, but Javier Baez—2-for-18 in the series to that point—laid down a perfect bunt; Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez fielded it but had no play, and the bases were loaded.

That brought up catcher David Ross, Lester's personal backstop but just a .229 hitter this year. Cubs manager Joe Maddon chose to keep his battery intact, rather than call upon slugger Kyle Schwarber to pinch-hit. Ross battled for six pitches before lofting a sacrifice fly to leftfield to bring home Zobrist, extending the score to 3–1. Bauer finally escaped by punching out Lester on his 29th pitch of the inning, running his pitch count to 74. He didn’t return for the fifth.

In all, Chicago's five-hit inning included three hits with runners in scoring position. The Cubs had gone 5-for-37 with just two walks and 17 strikeouts with runners in scoring position through the Series’ first four games.

Ace Bandage

Lester came out of the gate firing, striking out the side in the first inning on just 13 pitches and using a different one to finish off each batter: Rajai Davis whiffed on a changeup, Jason Kipnis on a cutter and Francisco Lindor on a curve. It was just the third time all year Lester had struck out the side in any inning, according to ESPN’s Jesse Rogers.

While Lester got two quick outs in the second inning using just five pitches, Ramirez feasted on an inside fastball, launching it 386 feet to leftfield for a towering solo homer, his first of the postseason, and his first away from Progressive Field since May 23.

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That mistake, the only batter Lester failed to retire from among the first 13 he faced, looked huge until the Cubs erupted for three runs in the fourth. Lester had to work out of trouble in the fifth after allowing a leadoff double to Carlos Santana, who took third on a groundout. He battled Brandon Guyer for nine pitches, finally striking him out looking at a fastball that PITCHf/x said was outside the zone, then got Roberto Perez to ground out. Still, he threw 19 pitches in the inning, his highest total of the night to that point.

The Indians closed the gap in the sixth by taking advantage of Lester’s unwillingness to throw to first base, something they had also exploited in the first inning of Game 1. Davis, who led the AL with 43 steals, hit a one-out single and then took a lead that was 18.5 feet by the time Lester moved and 27 feet by the time he released. He made it to second easily, then came home on a Lindor single to trim the lead to 3–2. But when Lindor tried to steal, Ross gunned him down, as he did in the third inning of the Series opener; this time, it was with a strong throw about five feet up the baseline toward first base that Baez caught and slapped down on Lindor.

The Big Close

After his 19-pitch fifth, Lester threw 21 pitches in the sixth, running his pitch count to 90. Though he could have ridden his ace further, Maddon signaled that he wanted a fresh arm, first by using lefty Miguel Montero to pinch-hit for Ross in the bottom of the sixth against righty Bryan Shaw—Montero struck out—and then going with Carl Edwards Jr. to start the seventh.

In all, Lester yielded four hits and struck out five without a walk. He netted 10 swings and misses from among his 90 pitches, including three apiece with his four-seam fastball and his cutter.

Edwards, though, immediately got into trouble when Napoli roped a single to leftfield, then took second on a passed ball by Willson Contreras, who had just entered the game. Edwards induced Santana to fly out, then gave way to Aroldis Chapman, entering a game for a potential eight-out save. Chapman had come into four postseason games in the eighth this year but hadn’t entered a game in the seventh since May 17, 2012.

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Though he nicked Guyer with a pitch, Chapman got out of the seventh-inning jam by striking out Ramirez and getting Perez to ground out. He had to deal with trouble in the eighth as well. Davis reached on a one-out infield single when made a diving stop on a ball down the line, but Chapman failed to cover first. Davis stole second base while Chapman carefully worked Kipnis away, getting him to chase fastballs outside the zone until he finally fouled out. Davis stole third as well, for his third steal of the game—the fifth player in Series history to do so—but Chapman struck out Lindor swinging, running his pitch count to 30.

Thanks to the Cubs’ work against Cody Allen, Chapman himself had to bat while Heyward, who had singled and stole second, stole third base as well. He struck out to end the threat, then pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, striking out Ramirez on a 101 mph fastball—his 42nd pitch of the night—to end the game. In a postseason that had already seen seven saves of four outs or more, Chapman finally got his first, and it was the longest thus far. It was just the third save of at least two innings in a World Series during the wild-card era: Brian Anderson had a three-inning save for the Indians in Game 4 of the 1997 World Series against the Marlins, and Madison Bumganer famously pitched the last five innings for the Giants against the Royals in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.

Champman's stellar outing ensured that Chicago still has a chance to become just the fourth team (out of 23) to overcome a three-games-to-one deficit in the World Series and win the final two games on the road. The 1958 Yankees (over the Braves), 1968 Tigers (over the Cardinals) and 1979 Pirates (over the Orioles) previously blazed that trail. Additionally, three other teams climbed out of a 3-games-to-2 hole won by taking the final two games on the road, namely the 1926 Cardinals (over the Yankees), the 1934 Cardinals (over the Tigers) and the 1952 Yankees (over the Dodgers).