CLEVELAND -- Seven pitches into Tuesday night's World Series Game 6, I'll confess, I was absolutely certain that the Cleveland Indians were going to win their first World Series since 1948 on this night, right now, no messing around. The place just had that sort of vibe. Progressive Field was alive in a way that it wasn't the first two games of the series, thousands upon thousands of people were milling around downtown Cleveland waiting to go loco banana crackers and even the Cavaliers, the team that taught the city that championships were in fact possible, were all heading across the street after their game against Houston. The stars seemed aligned, particularly after Josh Tomlin, who hadn't given up a run this series, got the first two batters out and went up 0-2 on Kris Bryant, to the roars of the crowd. This was the night.
Then this happened:
The Cubs would score two more runs in the inning on a nightmare fly ball in right, and once Addison Russell hit a grand slam in the third, this thing was over, and I felt even stupider than usual.
Which means we are about to have our sixth World Series Game 7 of the past 25 years. In less than 24 hours, either the Cleveland Indians (!!) or the Chicago Cubs (!!!!!) will be the World Champions. There have been other Game 7s. But somehow, this feels like the biggest. It's one game, for everything, with so much at stake. It boggles the brain just to think about.
So, because you're going to be sitting at your desk thinking about this game all day Wednesday anyway, here are five questions to consider for each team heading into the biggest game anyone on the field will have ever played in their entire life. (Game 7 starts at 8 p.m. ET sharp on FOX.)
1. Does Tyler Naquin get pulled? Naquin had a nightmare Game 6. His passivity on the Addison Russell fly ball in the first inning led to two runs, and then he struck out with the bases loaded in the fourth, extinguishing the Indians' one real rally. It might be time for a Rajai Davis start … though maybe not as the leadoff hitter like he was in Game 5.
2. Will Cleveland manager Terry Francona get his aggressive mojo back? The signature postseason move this year of the two-time World Series-winning manager has been to manage every second like the fate of the planet depends on this particular game. (Remember, had that Game 3 1-0 win gone into extra innings, Francona would have been out of bench players.) He was yanking everything out of the dugout and MacGyver-ing whatever contraption he could cobble together. It was inspiring to watch, and may have even forever changed how managers utilize their rosters in postseason going forward.
So why, then, did he tap the breaks in Games 5 and 6? In Game 5, Trevor Bauer looked fine for three innings but gave up a home-run to Kris Bryant to lead off the fourth and then a double to Anthony Rizzo. He had clearly lost whatever he had going -- the ball was just jumping off Cubs' bats -- but Francona let him keep going rather than immediately going to his deep bullpen. The result? Three more hits in the inning and two more runs, in a game the Cubs won by one run. You saw the same thing in Game 6, though even more extreme. Tomlin was fooling no one -- he was even hit hard in a scoreless second -- but Francona left him in to face the Cubs' order a second time. He ended up loading the bases before exiting and allowing Dan Otero to give up Russell's grand slam. The Cleveland bullpen didn't give up another run until an Anthony Rizzo homer in the ninth. (Danny Salazar, in particular, looked terrific and made you wonder what might have happened had he started.)
Francona had been managing like there was no tomorrow … until the last two games. Now that there is, in fact, no tomorrow, it is far past time to get back to the strategy that worked.
3. How many innings does Francona need out of Corey Kluber? For all the talk of Kluber becoming the first pitcher to start Games 1, 4 and 7 in a World Series since Jack Morris, he is not headed out to throw 10 innings like Morris did in 1991. Kluber is Cleveland's best starter, and he has given up only one run in 12 1/3 innings in this series, but his job is to get the team to Andrew Miller (who hasn't pitched since Saturday) and that's it. But when is that point? If it's a one-run game with a runner on in, say, the fifth? Is that too soon for Miller? The Indians have the starting pitcher advantage in Game 7, but not by much, and these deciding games often don't end up being about the starters anyway. The last one sure didn't:
This whole postseason for the Indians has been about building a bridge to Miller and Cody Allen. Considering how much of the bullpen Cleveland used Tuesday, Kluber might have to be the whole bridge himself.
4. Can the crowd carry them? Or are the Cubs fans coming? Despite the 7-0 Game 6 deficit, the Progressive Field crowd was never out of the game: They were imploring their team throughout. Unlike Games 1 and 2, the Cubs fans were a decidedly smaller presence. But now the Cubs are one game away from winning their first World Series in 108 years. That's the sort of thing that inspires a pilgrimage. According to ESPN's Darren Rovell, two Game 7 seats behind the Cubs dugout went for nearly twenty grand during Tuesday's game. The biggest story in all of sports -- the Cubs winning the World Series! -- can happen Wednesday night. People will come. Will Progressive Field be overwhelmed?
5. Can they rediscover their mojo? After Game 4, the Cubs looked completely out of this series, and it's not like they dominated Game 5: They barely escaped that one, too. But the early Cubs lead on Tuesday tilted this thing fast: It's now the Indians on their heels, the ones suddenly in danger of blowing the same 3-1 lead the Cavaliers just overcame four months ago. This World Series, like so many others before it, has put lie to the notion of momentum. The Indians better hope that continues to be the case. Because since the Indians lost their 1-0 lead in that Game 5 third inning, they haven't had one since.
1. So, is Aroldis Chapman available? Joe Maddon's decision to bring in Chapman with a 7-2 lead in the seventh inning -- and to keep him in for the rest of the game -- was, to put it lightly, hotly debated. On one hand, it was an elimination game for the Cubs, and thus you want your best pitcher to make sure the game doesn't get away. On the other hand: Your best pitcher just threw 20 pitches the night before another elimination game. Two days ago, Chapman had come in in the seventh inning only once in his whole career. He has now done it twice. The Cubs secured Game 6. But they may be down their most powerful weapon on Wednesday, all so Maddon could have a little more peace of mind with a five-run lead on Tuesday. And then a seven-run lead. It was curious, particularly when Chapman came out again in the ninth inning.
2. Is Jon Lester the first pitcher out of the pen? Or the last? One of the possible mindsets behind Maddon pitching Chapman so much? The fact that he has Lester in his pocket. Barring a Kyle Hendricks perfect game, we're almost certain to see Lester in Game 7, particularly with how little Maddon seems to trust Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop. But is Lester the closer? Or is he Andrew Miller? Maddon's bullpen management has been so unpredictable this series that your guess is as good as anyone else's. But this is going to be Lester's chance to have his Madison Bumgarner moment.
3. Is Kris Bryant a monster again? Is the whole lineup clicking again? Bryant started this series 1-for-15. But he has been locked in the last two games, with two massive homers in each, along with four hits on Tuesday. The whole middle of the order is coming around: Anthony Rizzo hit his first homer of the series, Ben Zobrist has been the best hitter start-to-finish and, oh yeah, Russell tied an MLB record for RBIs in a World Series game. (And he even left four guys on.) There's still some slack at the bottom of the order -- Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward and Javier Baez went 1-for-11 in a game in which the Cubs scored nine runs -- but it won't make a lick of difference if the Cubs' studs are locked in like they were on Tuesday.
4. Is Joe Maddon … OK? We don't mean to harp on this, but Maddon certainly seemed to veer and swerve a lot in the Cubs dugout for a guy with a five/seven run lead. If you were going to lose a game by six runs the way Cleveland did, you'd certainly like it to be in a game where you forced Chapman to throw 20 pitches. It's not necessarily that Maddon made a bad move as much as he seems, well, a step or two behind Francona this series. Cubs fans looking for a reason to be worried can look toward Maddon, the valued leader who looks … well, nervous. It has worked the past two games, and if his studs are hitting, it won't matter what he does. But Cubs fans weren't the only ones baffled by Maddon's Game 6 strategies.
If you trust other relievers to protect a 7-run lead with a man on first, why wouldn't you trust them with a 7-run lead and the bases empty?- Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) November 2, 2016
There's no greater pressure cooker than Game 7 of the World Series. Francona has won two of these before and was also at the helm of the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history. Maddon is beloved … but seems shaky all of a sudden, right? The managerial battle might be as fascinating as anything on the field Wednesday night.
5. Is everybody ready? The Cubs are one win away from winning the World Series. So are the Indians. It is insane to type both of those sentences. It will be even more insane to call one of them champions less than 24 hours from now. This game needs to get in our eyes, now.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow me @williamfleitch; or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.