Column: With help from above, Cubs finally win a title
The fleeting storm along Lake Erie couldn't have come at a better time for the Chicago Cubs.
It was as if the gods finally cut this snake-bit franchise a long overdue break.
One hundred and eight years overdue.
Shell-shocked after blowing a three-run lead with four outs to go in Game 7 of the World Series, the Cubs looked more like deer staring into headlights as they headed to extra innings against the Cleveland Indians. A series of head-scratching moves by manager Joe Maddon, who seemed intent on making sure the drought lasted into its 109th year, cost Chicago a chance to wrap this thing up in regulation.
Then it started raining.
The tarp was hurriedly rolled out to cover the infield and the Cubs used the unexpected break to regain their composure with a hastily called team meeting. The delay lasted only 17 minutes, but that was long enough to steady their shaky nerves.
Chicago went out in the 10th inning and turned a 6-6 tie into an 8-6 lead. Ben Zobrist delivered a run-scoring double down the left-field line, and third-string catcher Miguel Montero followed with an RBI single to give the Cubs some much-needed breathing room.
Then, shortly before 1 a.m. on the East Coast, the Cubs stamped out the Curse of the Billy Goat and Steve Bartman and Black Cats and Fly Balls Lost In the Sun - everything that conspired to keep them from celebrating a World Series title since their last one in 1908. With the gutsy Indians having scored one final run, cutting the deficit to 8-7 and putting the potential tying run on base, third baseman Kris Bryant swept across the infield, scooped up a soft ground ball and whipped a throw over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to end it once and for all.
Next year finally arrived.
Now, they can hoist a championship banner over Wrigley Field, not just a ''W'' flag.
''It happened! It happened! Chicago, it happened!'' Rizzo kept saying over and over again, as if he wasn't quite sure about it himself. ''We did it! We're world champions! I tell ya, we're world champions! I can't believe it!''
As one should've expected for a franchise that has endured so much misery, the Series-clinching win was downright gut-wrenching. Really, that was the way it had to be. The Cubs raced out to a 5-1 lead and were still up 6-3 with two outs in the eighth. But Maddon had already set in motion an excruciating finish for long-suffering Cubs fans by yanking starter Kyle Hendricks far too soon, and then calling upon overworked closer Aroldis Chapman in the eighth to close things out.
Chapman, predictably, surrendered a run-scoring hit to make it 6-4, followed by a two-run homer to Rajai Davis that sent Cleveland's fans - who know a thing or two about suffering - into a delirious dance.
With the Cavaliers' drought-breaking NBA title already in the bank just a few months ago, it looked as though the Indians would improbably bring home their first World Series title since 1948 to add to the city's trophy case. In the ninth, when Maddon inexplicably called for a safety suicide bunt with two strikes, only to have Javier Baez foul it off for a strikeout with the potential go-ahead run at third base, it seemed inevitable that Chicago would find a way to blow it.
Then the skies opened up.
And the Cubs settled down.
Jason Heyward, a big free-agent signee who's been a huge disappointment in an otherwise thrilling season, called his teammates together in the weight room.
''I just had to remind everybody who we are and what it took to get here,'' Heyward said.
His words settled everyone down.
''It was the best thing for us,'' Bryant said.
''We rallied together,'' he said. ''We knew we could do this. We pulled together and the boys believed.''
Team architect Theo Epstein, who oversaw a drought-breaking title for the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and now has done the same with the Cubs, happened to walk past the weight room during the delay.
''They were all gathered around saying, `This is only going to make it sweeter boys. Let's grind. Let's grind. Here we go,''' Epstein related. ''They went out and had an unbelievable inning.''
Cleveland manager Terry Francona downplayed the stoppage, saying he didn't think it decided the game.
''I don't think it really did,'' he said. ''Bryan Shaw was the guy we had out there. Of all the guys we have, he probably bounces back as good as anybody.''
But Shaw, who got the final two outs in the ninth, looked like a totally different pitcher when he went back to the mound in the 10th. He surrendered three hits and two intentional walks. The only out he got was a towering fly ball by Bryant that was caught just short of the wall in center field.
For the Indians, the drought goes on.
For the Cubs, there's no more talk about 1908.
They are World Series champions.
All it took was a stirring comeback from a 3-1 deficit, one of the greatest Game 7s in baseball history - and a little help from above.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .