CLEVELAND -- By far the weirdest part about this World Series is the fact that, for a wide section of the unaffiliated fan populace, the Cleveland Indians are the bad guys.
It's bizarre, right? The Indians are from Cleveland, for crying out loud, once the most tortured sports city on the planet, a place where a man made his family put in his obituary that he wanted six Browns players to be his pallbearers so "they could let me down one last time." These are the guys of "Major League," of Albert Belle and the corked bat, of nearly 70 years in the championship wilderness. We are a nation that adores scrappy underdogs, and the Indians, and their town, are among the scrappiest underdogs of them all.
Also: This team, this particular team, is fun, right? You have Francisco Lindor, one of those players whose mere appearance on your television screens leads to an immediate smile. (If the smile lasts for more than four hours, call your doctor.) You have Mike Napoli, whose post-World Series rampages through the streets after his Boston Red Sox won the 2013 World Series are so legendary that it's possible that it's still ongoing and he just never bothered to tell anyone. You have Jason Kipnis, who was childhood friends with Steve Bartman, for crying out loud. You have Coco Crisp and Ryan Merritt and Yan Gomes and so many goofballs and likable chaps and please, don't forget about Tyler Naquin and this:
The point is: Under any other circumstances, we'd all be losing our mind about these Indians. If they were playing the Dodgers, or the Giants, or the Cardinals, they'd be the feel-good story of the postseason. We'd all be cheering for them.
But they are not playing those teams. They are playing the Chicago Cubs, whose appearance in a World Series game is so surreal that it still sort of feels like a video game, or something from "Back to the Future II." Which is why it was so thrilling, jolting even, to see the Indians and their fans give a full-throated LOOK AT US! to the entire sports world in their 6-0 World Series Game 1 victory on Tuesday night. They, to borrow a phrase from baseball writer Joe Sheehan, might be an "Opponent" to most of the world, but tonight, they were the team that looked like it had won 103 games this season … and, for that matter, they were the team that looked like America's Sweethearts.
First, the team. Corey Kluber, despite his Cy Young Award a couple of years ago, is one of the more underappreciated aces in baseball, so underappreciated, in fact, that last year he had 18 strikeouts headed into the ninth inning and Terry Francona pulled him. He was dominant on Tuesday, striking out nine Cubs, including eight in the first three innings, and giving up only four hits with no walks. Andrew Miller was his usual unhittable self. Lindor did a bunch of exciting Lindor things; Rajai Davis showed off vital range in center field, including on one play in which he had a legitimate shot at a triple play if only he'd an earpiece in; and then Roberto Perez did this.
And then he did this.
As pointed out by MLB.com's Daren Willman, the first homer was the hardest hit ball hit off Jon Lester all season, and it was Perez's second-most impressive homer of the night.
Also, Andrew Miller extinguished a Cubs threat -- his second threat extinguished in as many innings -- by striking out Kyle Schwarber, who hadn't had a real at-bat since April, in the bottom of the eighth with the Cubs DH as the tying run. Schwarber has such a powerful swing that even his strikeouts are majestic, particularly when they've been thrown by Miller.
But the fans showed up just as fierce. There were more Cubs fans in attendance than you'd necessarily like to see as a fan of the home team -- during those rare moments that the Cubs gave them something to cheer about, a chorus of "Let's Go Cubs" rattled around the stadium -- but that didn't stop Progressive Field from being at its full-throated best. Tuesday was already an unofficial holiday in Cleveland, with LeBron James and the Cavaliers receiving their championship rings just next door at the Quicken Loans Arena minutes before first pitch (they would go on to trounce the Knicks, 117-88), and the vibe lacked much of the nervousness you generally see with a World Series Game 1, particularly for a team that hasn't won a championship in nearly 70 years. The place was hopping from the get-go, with a sellout crowd eager to remind everyone that they were not, in fact, a gaggle of Snidley Whiplashes here just to be the supporting foils for the fuzzy Cubbies.
It was notable, actually, how much the "historic" mantle of this game -- which, after all, was the Cubs' first World Series game in 71 years -- was stolen by the city of Cleveland. This was their night, with LeBron and Kluber and Miller and even the city's police department feeling their oats.
Cleveland's history of losing is as pronounced as the Cubs', and Tuesday night was clearly a celebration of the end of all that. A championship banner at 7:30 p.m. ET, a two-run first in the World Series at 8:30, a three-run game-clinching bomb at 11:30 and the whole thing is cemented in Cleveland lore forever. It's pretty difficult to trump the Cubs playing in the World Series, but the Indians didn't just do it, they did it with ease.
This is obviously just Game 1. This was a game the Indians absolutely had to win -- Cleveland is deploying the 2014 Madison Bumgarner strategy of "just win all the Kluber games no matter what and then see what happens" -- and Francona managed like it. There will be ramifications, particularly when it comes to Miller, who threw 46 pitches, the most he has thrown in a game since 2011. The Cubs had a solid approach against Miller and nearly scored off him twice. On one hand, it's a measure of Miller's dominance that "nearly scoring off him twice" feels like a victory. But on the other: Miller is the central figure of this series, the Indians' Daisy Cutter deployed at the most pivotal moments for maximum impact. He threw a ton of pitches tonight, and the Cubs looked like they had a better chance against him than anybody else has. This is still a long series: The Miller-vs.-whoever-the-Cubs-throw-at-him is the central matchup of this World Series, and it'll be tough for him to go back out in Game 2 without negative effects the rest of the way. The Cubs lost, but that was a victory.
Also a victory: The Cubs' pitching advantages the next two games of this series, assuming Kluber will be pitching Game 4. (Which the early Francona hook hinted at.) The Cubs didn't score any runs tonight, but they generated plenty of chances against the Indians' best three pitchers. On Wednesday night, they get to face pitchers other than those three. It will feel like relief. It will also feel like opportunity. The team that won Game 1 has won the last six World Series, and 24 of the last 28. But these Cubs didn't get here by worrying about what happened in the past.
One thing, though, is now obvious, if it wasn't already: The Indians are not bit players in the Cubs' story. They see the Cubs as bit players in theirs. That's what made this series so compelling in the first place. Every night is history, and unprecedented over several decades, for both of these teams. The Cubs-happy popular consensus might not have realized that coming in. It does now.
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