After 108 years of failing to win a World Series, 71 years of failing to reach the World Series, goats, black cats, and curses, Cubs fans couldn’t expect a World Series championship to come easily. But after a storybook season, they probably didn’t expect it to be quite as hard as Game 7 proved to be.
The 2016 season unfolded like a glorious dream. Early winning streaks, a lineup full of sluggers, a rotation full of aces and dominant offensive totals all fed the narrative that 2016 was finally the year of destiny. The Cubs' historically long championship drought would, at long last, end. It was as frictionless a season as a team could hope for. By the time the Cubs clinched the division in mid-September, it seemed a foregone conclusion that this was the team that would go all the way.
But as any baseball fan knows, anything can happen in the playoffs, and as any Cubs fan knows, the Cubs have a way of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The Cubs’ path to the World Series was littered with Herculean obstacles.
First they had to get past the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series, with their “even-year magic” and postseason ace Madison Bumgarner. It took a late-inning comeback in Game 4 to clinch the division title.
The National League Championship Series pitted the Cubs against the Dodgers and their seemingly untouchable pitcher Clayton Kershaw. This time, the Cubs fell behind in the series two games to one before finishing off the Dodgers in six games to clinch, for the first time since 1945, the National League pennant.
Then they came to face the Cleveland Indians, a team just as young, hungry and bursting with promise as the Cubs, and with nearly as much franchise baggage. Suddenly, the Cubs seemed exposed, and their once-formidable bats fell silent. Most distressingly, they lost two games at home, meaning the Cubs would have to win three straight games—with two on the road—to win the World Series.
On Saturday night, in a dejected and drained Wrigley Field, the task seemed insurmountable. But just as Cubs fans felt like they were watching their season-long dream crumble into a familiar nightmare, the Cubs gritted out a win on Sunday to bring the series back to Cleveland. On Tuesday, Cubs’ bats sprung to life and they won again, forcing the reeling Indians to a Game 7 showdown.
Game 7 Showdown
Dexter Fowler supplied the early spark for the Cubs with a leadoff homer in Wednesday’s Game 7. Though the Indians quickly responded to tie the game, the Cubs seemed to have finally solved Corey Kluber’s devastating curveball and were able to create runs with singles, doubles, sacrifice flies and a homer from Javy Baez to put together a comfortable four-run lead. And Cubs fans cautiously prepared to celebrate.
Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks had pitched a solid game and was two outs into the 5th inning when a questionable strike call led him to walk the Indians’ Carlos Santana. Manager Joe Maddon yanked Hendricks in favor of veteran Jon Lester and catcher David Ross – and that’s when the come-apart feeling Cubs fans know so well began anew.
A wild pitch to hotshot shortstop Francisco Lindor brought in two runs for the Indians before Lester was able to exit the inning with the score at 5-3. Though Lester’s entrance into the game will likely be the source of barstool arguments for years to come, it did enable a fairytale moment for David Ross, who in the last game of his professional baseball career launched a solo homer to center field, bringing the Cubs’ lead to three runs.
In another move armchair managers decried, Maddon opted to bring in fireballer Aroldis Chapman in the 8th inning for the second time in as many days to close out the game. Chapman had been instrumental in getting the Cubs to a Game 7. But Wednesday night, he struggled. He gave up one run, and then the Cubs saw their lead vanish when Chapman gave up a gut-punching two-run homer from Rajai Davis. The 9th inning passed without either side scoring, and then the Cubs found themselves facing sudden death. Any Indians scoring meant it was all over, so tantalizingly close to the finish line.
In the Cubs’ history, this is usually where the magic vanishes, too. The Cubs, historically, don’t come back – but this team wasn’t the historic Cubs. After a 17-minute rain delay and what must have been the Knute Rockne pep talk of all time from Gold Glove candidate Jason Heyward in the dugout, the Cubs pieced together just enough offense to get ahead in a manner that seemed to elude them all season -- they played small ball.
A single from Kyle Schwarber, whose only games since April have been World Series games. An intentional walk to Anthony Rizzo moved Ben Zobrist, who was an offensive rock in the postseason, to the plate. Zobrist doubled, allowing pinch runner Albert Almora, Jr. to score. A single from Miguel Montero, whose grand slam in Game 1 of the NLCS lifted the Cubs to victory, brought in what would be the deciding run of the game -- the series -- the season. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give them a chance.
Heading into the bottom of the 10th, Maddon gave the ball to Carl Edwards, Jr., and a fandom held its breath, preparing for disaster to strike while praying that this once, it wouldn’t. Edwards notched two quick outs before walking Brandon Guyer, bringing Cleveland hero Davis back up to bat. Davis struck again with a single, leaving the Cubs clinging to a one-run lead and the slenderest of hopes. Maddon made his last pitching substitution, putting in Mike Montgomery to face Michael Martinez.
In the end, it was the heart of this Cubs team that finally put the game away for good. MVP favorite third baseman Kris Bryant smiled jubilantly as he fielded the soft grounder to Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo tapped the bag as he caught the ball, then tossed his glove into the air and joined his teammates in a leaping, joyous pile in the infield of Cleveland’s Progressive Field. In a moment lighter than air, the 2016 Cubs lifted the weight of 108 years of frustration, fear and failure off an entire city.
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Cubs fans, show us how you celebrate your amazing team! Whether you’ve got shots from Wrigley Field or your neighborhood bar, we’d like to see them.