By Steve Kelly
For a manager whose team had just lost all probable hope at a championship, Joe Maddon was strikingly upbeat.
It was late Saturday night, and the Chicago Cubs had just lost again, falling behind the Cleveland Indians, 3-1, in the World Series. But as he dissected the Cubs’ woes, Maddon saw a path forward: win Sunday, and a comeback wouldn’t seem nearly as far-fetched.
“I kind of like our chances,” Maddon said.
Teams in the same situation in either the League Championship Series or the World Series have a success rate of 15%. Fangraphs, a statistical website with a sophisticated projection system, was only slightly more generous: It put the Cubs’ chances of winning the series at 17%.
But look beyond all that and Maddon looks at least partly right: There is more to like about the Cubs’ chances than history would suggest.
Heading into Game 6 on tonight in Cleveland, the Cubs must win two games on the road to secure their first championship since 1908. But it’s important to understand where teams in their situation struggle in the final leg of the series and where they don’t.
Among teams that have fallen behind 3-1 in either the LCS or the World Series, only 21% have come back to win the series, according to Stats LLC. But those that force a seventh game go on to win it 71% of the time.
In other words, the hardest part isn’t winning Game 7. It’s getting there. And after winning Game 5 at Wrigley Field on Sunday night, 3-2, the Cubs are well-positioned to get there.
“We’re writing our own history,” said Cubs shortstop Addison Russell. “Why stop?”
Typically, a return to the American League team’s home ballpark, which brings the designated hitter back into play, is not a welcome change for the National League team. It almost always favors AL teams, which unlike NL teams are constructed with the DH in mind. But the Cubs are the rare NL team that can’t wait to get back to playing under AL rules.
The reason is Kyle Schwarber, who recovered from a season-long knee injury just in time to start the first two games of the series. Schwarber drove in two of Chicago’s five runs during those games, but because he was not medically cleared to play the field, the Cubs had to bench him at Wrigley.
Because of Schwarber, who batted fifth during the first two games, the Cubs’ lineup stands to benefit from being in Cleveland more than the Indians’ lineup does. “He jacks everybody up,” Maddon said. “It makes your lineup longer. It makes it thicker. It makes it better.”
It’s not just the DH rule that favors the Cubs, though. As well as the Indians have played at Progressive Field—they were tied for the best home record in the AL during the regular season—it may be an easier venue for the Cubs.
The biggest challenge for a team in the postseason, according to Indians manager Terry Francona, is maintaining a sense of normalcy. That was almost impossible for the Cubs to do on a weekend when the lines at some Wrigleyville bars were already around the corner when players arrived at the ballpark.
The packed streets they waded through to get to work reflected the weight of the Cubs’ first World Series appearance since 1945. And players felt it. It was likely not merely a coincidence that they swung uncharacteristically at so many pitches outside the strike zone in their two losses at home.
“It’s the atmosphere of us wanting to do so much for these fans,” Cubs catcher David Ross said. “I think that’s where it comes from.”
The Cubs’ pitching rotation also sets them up well for the rest of the series. On Tuesday, they will start Jake Arrieta, last year’s National League Cy Young award winner, who had little trouble against Cleveland in the Cubs’ Game 2 victory. The Indians will start Josh Tomlin, who has pitched well in the playoffs but lacks Arrieta’s record of sustained excellence and his normal rest.
Likewise, though the Indians have ace Corey Kluber lined up for a potential Game 7, he would be pitching on short rest for the second consecutive start. The Cubs would start a fully rested Kyle Hendricks, who has held opponents scoreless in his last two outings. And they would have ace Jon Lester available out of the bullpen.
None of this is to suggest the Cubs have an easy path to a title. For a team that has been without one for so long, there is no such thing. But if nothing else, the Cubs have already done something remarkable.