CLEVELAND—Mike Tyson, that great American orator, once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Throughout their implausible playoff run, the Indians have been Buster Douglas, bobbing and weaving, sustaining only glancing body blows as they adhered to the necessarily unconventional tactics orchestrated by manager Terry Francona. On Tuesday night, they became Michael Spinks. The fist to the teeth came quickly in Game 6 of this World Series, delivered by the Cubs, who danced away for an easy 9–3 win to set up a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday.
“It’s the only game that kind of got out of hand early,” said Cleveland first baseman Mike Napoli, of a postseason in which the Indians had not before Tuesday reached the fifth inning with a deficit of more than two runs. “It’s been a while since something like that happened.”
Chicago’s onslaught began with two outs in the top of the first inning, when Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant blasted Indians starter Josh Tomlin’s eighth pitch of the night deep into the night for a home run that traveled 433 feet. According to Statcast, the presumptive NL MVP’s mammoth shot—which left his bat at 106.2 mph—would have fallen for a hit 88.9% of the time, the only conclusion being that 11.1% of major league games are played in the Grand Canyon. It was a no-doubter.
Bryant’s blow staggered Tomlin. The Cubs turned around three of his next eight pitches for hits. Anthony Rizzo’s and Ben Zobrist’s were both stinging singles, and each of those surpassed 100 mph, too. Then Addison Russell lofted a pitch to right-centerfield that should have been caught for the frame’s third out, but fell between the crossing—and miscommunicating—outfielders Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall. Zobrist, running from first, is a gentle and spiritual man, but he unrepentantly plowed into catcher Roberto Perez as second baseman Jason Kipnis’s relay throw arrived at the plate. Zobrist then flexed his pecs after the ball trickled away, preening over his downed opponent. The rout was on.
“That was an unfortunate play, because we thought we were out of the inning with one and could kind of regroup,” said Francona, who noted that it ought to have been Naquin’s ball, as he is the centerfielder. “Instead, it’s three, and J.T. had to keep pitching.”
Tuesday night was the first time in a month that the Indians played tight, the first time that Francona’s autumn experiment—born from the fact that his pitching staff is badly depleted, with starter Carlos Carrasco injured and Danny Salazar available only in relief—blew up in his face.
Apparently, not everyone can pitch well on only three days’ rest, as Corey Kluber had in Game 4. Tomlin, who allowed 36 home runs during the regular season, hadn’t permitted one in the playoffs until he faced Bryant. By the time he exited with one out in the third inning and the bases loaded, fatigued after just 48 pitches, he had yielded six hits. “Getting into the third, I just thought he had a harder time throwing his breaking ball where he wanted to,” Francona would say. “It was just catching a lot of the plate.”
Apparently, not every reliever can enter at any point in a ballgame and succeed. Dan Otero came in for Tomlin, and three pitches later he allowed a grand slam, to Russell, who ran his RBI count for the game up to six. The shortstop’s shot was hit so well that it wouldn’t have turned into an out in any circumstance, according to Statcast. It made the score 7–0.
Apparently, the Cubs were the Cubs all along, the winners of 103 regular-season games. If the Indians regressed to their mean, the Cubs progressed to theirs. The previously passive heart of their order—Bryant, Rizzo, Zobrist and Russell—went 11 for 19 and pumped out more home runs (three, after Rizzo’s ninth-inning capper) and more RBIs (nine) in Game 6 than it had in the series’ first five games combined. “We looked more normal,” said manager Joe Maddon.
That was the case in the field too, as a defensively superior team that had uncharacteristically committed 10 errors against the Indians through the first six games made none on Tuesday, time and again demonstrating the sensational glove work for which it is known. “All over the place, man,” said Maddon, of the range of his fielders. “That’s pretty much what we’ve looked like the entire season, those kind of defensive plays.”
There was, to be sure, a silver lining for the Indians, who now find themselves deadlocked with an opponent on whom they had a three games to one lead only three days ago. In some ways, it was good for them to be Spinks. An early laugher was much better than a tensely played loss would have been. Francona did not have to use his pair of relief aces, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, but Maddon did tap his, Aroldis Chapman—questionably, as Chapman came in despite a five-run lead in the seventh. “You always want to win the game,” said Francona, “but the next best thing—and we talked about this before we even started—was to try to make them use pitching even in a loss. So we hung around enough that at least Chapman had to pitch. You never know. Maybe that helps us.”
The Indians also have Corey Kluber, their last remaining ace, ready to go for Game 7. Kluber has allowed three runs in 30 1/3 postseason innings so far, for an ERA of 0.89. He gave up just one earned run in 12 total frames in wins in Game 1 and Game 4 against the Cubs; he didn't throw a 90th pitch in either. Game 7 will again come on three days’ rest, and on Tuesday he insisted a short break had yet to physically affect him. In any event, he now might only have to go five innings, as a refreshed Miller and Allen will likely be able to work at least two apiece. “I’m going to give everything I’ve got,” promised Miller.
“If you’re going to take anything good out of it, we got Kluber on the mound tomorrow, with the whole back end of the bullpen ready to go,” said a momentarily dejected Napoli, in the wake of Tuesday’s beating. It is not nearly too late for Cleveland to rise up off the mat.
“Tonight was a tough night,” said Francona. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s a really important game tomorrow.”