If there’s one way I’d choose to end every baseball season, it would be in a game seven. There is nothing more climactic. It’s the closest thing the baseball postseason structure can come to a Superbowl-like atmosphere. And, honestly, it’s better. Not to disparage the NFL, but the two teams get two weeks off prior to The Big Game. In Wednesday’s game seven, starters will pitch on short rest and relievers will pitch in consecutive games having already worked more innings than they are normally asked.
While spectators may root for a game seven though, fans nearer to the teams—particularly in Cleveland—are likely stressing over the possibilities inherent. Not to drive the point home to anyone but, anything can happen. Heck, I’d wager even the players are stressing. If Terry Francona is eating popsicles and ordering $44 worth of room service ice cream up to his hotel room, you can bet the players are feeling the pressure too.
But how did we get to this? Baseball is a long, arduous season, where even the most dedicated fan isn’t likely to watch every inning of every game. Here are the main milestones of the 2016 season that will culminate in game seven between Cleveland and the Cubs:
This is probably cheating, as it didn’t happen during the 2016 season, but it’s really hard not to begin here. Especially for Cleveland.
See, if, for some reason, the 2016 season wasn’t played out, the majority of fans would probably have retroactively thought of it as the season the Cubs probably should have broken that curse. In much the same way the 1994 World Series is remembered as the year the Expos probably should have won.
However, if you take a look at the preseason predictions now, Cleveland was kind of a forgotten team. Not a single writer at CBS chose Cleveland to win their division, and just Dayn Perry chose them to make the postseason—as the second wild card team.
In fact, CBS even took the time to mock projection systems like PECOTA for choosing Cleveland over the Royals in the AL Central. Yes, for some reason, computers actually knew what Cleveland was capable of. Well, computers... And us (humble brag).
So. Prior to the 2016 season, everyone and their computers were picking the Cubs out of the NL while only our computers were picking Cleveland to do anything at all. Got it.
The best team in baseball, and a mediocre competitor
Projections are one thing, and actually performing is another.
By the end of May, the Cubs boasted the best record in all of baseball, going a white-hot 35-15 out of the gate. Meanwhile, Cleveland was wallowing just one win above .500, and with a top-three run differential. In other words, it looked like it might be a 2015 repeat in Cleveland all over again, when the team went 81-80 with a third-order pythagorean expectation that would have put them closer to 91 wins.
It wasn’t all bad news in the first half for Cleveland though. Francisco Lindor was cementing himself as a legitimate threat to the best shortstop in baseball title, after some believed his rookie campaign was a bit of a defensive mirage. And both Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar were having quietly great seasons.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Cubs were the best team in baseball by runs allowed, and it wasn’t even close. The Cubs had allowed 23 fewer runs than the second-best team—the Nationals. Pitching was thought to be the team’s one possible weakness. Instead, Jake Arrieta was continuing one of the hottest streaks in all of baseball; a stretch that included 24 consecutive quality starts, two no-hitters, and four complete game shutouts.
By the end of May and since June 21, 2015, Arrieta had started 31 games, won 25 of them, struck out a batter per inning, and had an ERA of 1.09. What’s extra special about that is that the end of May wasn’t particularly kind to Arrieta. Over his three starts in late May, he allowed five earned runs—over 20 percent of what he had allowed in his previous 28 starts.
Throw in the fact that Kris Bryant looked like the NL MVP favorite, and the fact that their amazing win-loss record was precisely equalled by their pythagorean win expectation based on runs scored and runs allowed, and it looked like the storybook season was well underway in North Chicago.
Cleveland never did any sustained losing at any point in the 2016 season, and were just about to go on their longest win streak of the season—a 14-game win streak that would take them through sweeps of the White Sox, Rays, Tigers, and Braves.
Since the end of May, both Cleveland and the Cubs would boast identical records, going 68-43 for the remainder of the season. Perhaps it was destiny that these two teams met this way.
The trade deadline
By August 1, Cleveland had sky-rocketed to 60-43—the second-best record in the American League. It wasn’t just on the back of the 14-game win streak either, Cleveland had turned around to show a sustained winning culture. The longest losing streak Cleveland faced was three games.
What’s more amazing than how short their longest losing streaks were, was how the team bounced back after having them. In May, they bounced back from two such streaks with a four-game winning streak and a three-game winning streak. As the calendar turned over to June, Cleveland turned a three-game losing streak into a six-game winning streak. That 14-game winning streak we discussed earlier? It began at the end of a three-game losing streak. Every small losing streak Cleveland faced was being answered with a new greater beginning.
It seemed clear though, that the team needed to add pieces at the trade deadline. The Tigers were hot on their heels, and catcher Yan Gomes was injured. The team opted to send a large package of prospects to the Brewers in exchange for Jonathan Lucroy. After some negotiating though, Lucroy vetoed the trade and wound up as a member for the Rangers instead.
Instead of conceding the deadline though, Cleveland made a blockbuster deal for Andrew Miller—who was thought to be unavailable. A move that has since proved pivotal to the team’s chances at a World Series. Miller has gone on to set the all-time strikeout record by a reliever in a postseason.
Interestingly, the Cubs went to the same well as Cleveland, trading for a different Yankees reliever. To be clear, the Cubs didn’t have to make any additions to their roster; the team looked—and still looks—unbeatable. However, in retrospect, Aroldis Chapman has played an incredibly crucial role in getting his team to game seven and battling back from a 3-1 deficit.
Where the Cubs showed their mettle during the regular season, Cleveland rose to the occasion when it has counted the most.
Cleveland strolled over the Red Sox—one of the AL favourites—in a three-game sweep in which they outscored their opponent 15-7.
If that wasn’t enough, it took until game four of the ALCS for Cleveland to lose their first game. They still went on to win the next one and eliminate the Blue Jays 4-1, outscoring them 12-7. In total against their American League opponents, Cleveland managed three shutout victories while battling severe injury losses to two key pitching contributors—Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. Warning: imagining what the team would have been capable of with them on their roster is not advised.
Where Cleveland has dominated though—never being behind in a single series, the Cubs were handed a small scare when they went down 2-1 in the NLCS at the hands of the Dodgers. That seemed to be much ado about nothing though, as the Cubs outscored the Dodgers at the astonishing clip of 23-6 over the following three games.
A huge part of what got Cleveland here has been Terry Francona’s managing style. Francona has been quick to pull his pitcher, and aggressively used his top relievers. In storming back in this series, Joe Maddon has shown similar acumen, but it took him a while to adopt it. Chapman has been used for four innings of the past two games, and earned an eight-out save in game five.
While the two team took slightly different paths to the 2016 World Series, they share some similarities. Baseball fans should revel that the ending or prolonging of a curse rides on just one game now. Game sevens are special and the narratives that dictate who should or shouldn’t win don’t matter. The moves that the teams made and their regular seasons records are set aside. These are the two best teams the 2016 season has churned out, and both will face one of the biggest moments of their franchise’s history.