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Three Strikes: Russell leads Cubs’ rout of Indians to force World Series Game 7

The Chicago Cubs bashed three home runs in Game 6, including a grand slam by Addison Russell, to cruise by the Cleveland Indians and set up a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday.

Three Strikes on the Cubs’ 9–3 win over the Indians that forced a Game 7 in the 2016 World Series:

Game 6 six-pack

Through the first four games of the World Series, Addison Russell was 2 for 15 with one RBI. After perking up by going 2 for 4 with an RBI single in Game 5, Russell’s bat erupted in Game 6. In the first inning he hit a flyball that should have been caught but fell in for what was ruled a double, scoring two runs to put Chicago ahead 3–0. Two innings later he greeted reliever Dan Otero by smoking a grand slam to left-center to make the score 7–0. Not only did that blast all but ensure there would be a Game 7, it also enabled Russell to tie a World Series record for RBIs in a single game, set by the Yankees’ Bobby Richardson in 1960 Game 3 and tied by another Yankee, Hideki Matsui, in 2009's Game 6 and the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols during a three-homer night in 2011’s Game 5.

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Russell wasn’t the only Cub to stop hibernating in recent days. Bryant, just 1 for 14 through the first four games, lined a game-tying home run over the ivy in Game 5 at Wrigley then smashed another home run in the first inning of Tuesday night’s game. In the fifth inning he singled to deep shortstop, and in both the seventh and ninth he lined a single to left, giving him five hits and two home runs in his previous seven at-bats.

Anthony Rizzo added three hits, including a two-run home run in the ninth, and Ben Zobrist had a pair of hits for Chicago. In all, the Cubs' 3-4-5-6 hitters combined for go 11-for-19 with two home runs and nine RBIs, while as a team Chicago had more runs through its first 15 batters (seven) in Game 6 than it did in 104 plate appearances in the three games at Wrigley Field (five).

Jake’s Field

In his second start of the Series at the ballpark formerly known as Jacob’s Field, or “the Jake,” Jake Arrieta looked right at home while giving Indians fans a sense of déjà vu. Last Wednesday he got the win after pitching 5 2/3 innings in which he allowed two hits, three walks and one run while striking out six. On Tuesday Arrieta also got the win after going 5 2/3 innings, this time giving up three hits, three walks and two runs. The 2015 NL Cy Young winner looked like his old self in both starts, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning in Game 2 and striking out nine batters in Game 6. A Mike Napoli RBI single in the fourth and a Jason Kipnis solo home run in the fifth accounted for the only damage against Arrieta, who threw 102 pitches.

His counterpart, Cleveland’s Josh Tomlin, threw just 32, and failed to replicate his impressive showing in Game 3, when he shut out Chicago for 4 2/3 innings in what became a 1–0 Indians win. All of Tomlin’s pitches were effective that night, especially his curveball, but on Tuesday Bryant jumped on a curve for his home run, Russell hit a changeup for a single, Zobrist got a hit on another curve and Russell’s double came on a cutter. In the third, Tomlin went to his curve on a 3–2 pitch to Rizzo, who hit it for a single, and Zobrist lined a fastball for another base hit, prompting Indians manager Terry Francona to go to the bullpen. On Otero’s third pitch, a sinker, Russell launched the grand slam.

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The Cubs’ bullpen fared far better. Mike Montgomery relieved Arrieta and got the ball to closer Aroldis Chapman without giving up another run, just as he had in Game 2 in relief of Arrieta. The difference this time was that Chapman came on in the seventh inning, not the eighth. It was the second straight game in which Chicago manager Joe Maddon went to his heat-seeking closer in the seventh inning. Chapman needed 46 pitches to get eight outs in Game 5—the longest save of his career—and admitted afterward that, while he preferred to come in for the ninth inning, he was fine with entering earlier as long as he was told about it ahead of time and wasn’t asked to warm up multiple times.

So when Chapman started throwing in the bullpen during the seventh inning it seemed clear he would be coming in, despite the Cubs’ five-run lead. With two on and two out, Chapman induced a groundball to first from the Indians’ best hitter, Francisco Lindor, but appeared to lose the race to the bag. Replays, however, showed that Chapman actually got there by a millisecond, ending the inning.

Now pitching…?

Maddon’s willingness to think outside the box first gained acclaim when he guided the Tampa Bay Rays to an unexpected American League pennant in 2008. Now that he has taken another team to the Fall Classic, he is more respected than ever, but his unique style—which extends to the clubhouse, such as when he encouraged his players to wear Halloween costumes on the flight from Chicago to Cleveland before Game 6—can sometimes be ripe for second-guessing. That was never more true than when Maddon decided to use Chapman for seven outs with a five-run lead, and then kept him in the game for the ninth even though Rizzo's homer had made the score 9–2.

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Chapman left after giving up a leadoff walk to Brandon Guyer and will reportedly be ready to go in Game 7, but that usage—Chapman threw 20 pitches without the tying run even making it to the on-deck circle—leaves open the question of how effective he'll be if he does pitch. Even with NL ERA leader Kyle Hendricks going for the Cubs on Wednesday against Corey Kluber, the most dominant starter of the entire postseason, the 38th World Series Game 7 in baseball history figures to become a bullpen battle at some point. Hendricks was lifted for a reliever in the fifth inning of Game 3 despite working on a shutout, and Kluber’s 0.89 ERA has come despite averaging just six innings in his five postseason starts.

Kluber has allowed only nine hits, one walk and one run while striking out 15 in 12 World Series innings. With closer Cody Allen and uber-reliever Andrew Miller getting another night off in Game 6’s blowout, all Francona needs is for the formula that has worked so well for the Indians thus far to play out one more time: hand an early lead to Kluber, watch him overpower Chicago and let Miller and Allen take care of as many outs as needed.

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Maddon’s strategy, on the other hand, seems to be get as little as possible from his middle relievers and go to Chapman as soon as he can. He went to Mike Montgomery for two innings in Game 2, then Carl Edwards Jr. for one out in Game 5 and Montgomery for three outs in Game 6. Pedro Strop got the ninth inning’s first two outs, but gave up an RBI single to Roberto Perez, who was thrown out by Jason Heyward trying to stretch it into a double. Travis Wood then came on to record the final out.

All pitchers should be available in Game 7, including the Game 5 starters, Chicago’s Jon Lester and Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer, and possibly even the Game 6 starters as well. Normal rules don’t apply in Game 7, which is fitting given that rules have rarely applied throughout this postseason. An October marked by home runs from unlikely sources and reliever usage that recalls a bygone era will end in November, with one fan base celebrating a long-awaited title and the other cursing its fate.