Usually a World Series matchup is anticipated for a lot of different reasons. This one has something that we rarely see though: the team with the longest championship drought pitted against the team with the second-longest championship drought. In a few days, either the Cleveland Indians or Chicago Cubs will finally hold aloft that trophy for the first time in what must seem like forever.
Game 1 is the start of what should be a fun and emotional series. The Indians come into the game with home field advantage after the American League beat the National League 4-2 way back on July 13th at Petco Park in San Diego.
LAST TIME THEY MET
The last time these two teams met, they played a pair of two-game series in 2015. Each team won two games (one at home and one on the road), while the Cubs outscored Cleveland 22-11 thanks to a 17-0 rout at Progressive Field on June 17. Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant all homered in that game, while Kyle Schwarber went 4-for-5 with a triple and two RBIs.
Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant is the core of the lineup, and if the Cubs are to win, they’ll probably need one or both of them to fire. Dexter Fowler is a consistent on-base threat atop the lineup, while down the bottom Addison Russell and Jason Heyward are two solid hitters who can both offer some power. DH Kyle Schwarber is the wild card assuming he plays.
Joe Maddon has the option of putting Jorge Soler in at right field because Heyward has gone just 2-for-28 this postseason, though considering the latter is in the first year of a $184 million contract it’s likely he’ll be first to get an opportunity.
The Cubs lineup is generally quite balanced with left-handed and right-handed hitters, but for whatever reason they’ve taken much more of a liking to southpaws. As a team, they own a .267 batting average against lefties compared to a .252 mark against righties. They’ll have to try and counteract that here in game one against the right-hander Corey Kluber.
Schwarber will likely play in his first game since April 7th here in game one of the World Series. He’s returning from a devastating ACL injury he suffered against Arizona in what was just the fourth game of the season.
Since that injury, he’s been rehabbing for much of the season, but played in a few games at the Arizona Fall League where he went 1-for-6 with a double and two walks as the designated hitter. The Cubs love the power that he can bring, and he is the obvious choice to use as a DH in the opening two games of the series at Progressive Field.
No one in this lineup has more than one hit against Kluber, while Ben Zobrist is the only player to have faced him on more than 10 occasions.
Cleveland relies a lot on Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor to get on base, while Carlos Santana, Mike Napoli, and Jose Ramirez are called upon to drive them in. Their outfield typically doesn’t offer much power, but whoever mans left, or center has great speed at the bottom of the lineup and is typically in the game for their defense.
Manager Terry Francona typically platoons left field and center field, so Coco Crisp and Tyler Naquin figure to be on the bench for this game as they both can hit from the left side.
With Lester having spent time pitching in the American League quite recently, a number of Cleveland’s hitters will be reasonably familiar with him. Rajai Davis has had 46 at-bats against Lester in his career, hitting to the tune of a .304 average with a homer and four runs driven in. Mike Napoli is a teammate of Lester’s from the 2013 World Series win, and is 6-for-10 with two homers and 5 RBIs in his career against the southpaw.
As a team, Cleveland was better against left-handers than they were versus righties this year. They hit southpaws to a .268 average with a .748 OPS and will hope to continue that dominance in game one against Lester.
LHP JON LESTER
If there were a guy the Cubs always wanted to have start game one of a World Series, it’s Jon Lester. There’s no better pitcher on their roster that is equipped to deal with the pressure that comes with being the first Cubs pitcher to start a World Series game since 1945.
In his career, Lester has made three World Series starts and won each of those, combining to allow just one earned run through 21 innings. Back in the 2013 World Series he started game one for the Boston Red Sox against St. Louis and threw 7 2/3 innings of five-hit, shutout ball while striking out eight.
So far this postseason, the Cubs left-hander has done everything his team could have hoped from him. Opposing hitters have just a .189 average against him in 21 innings, after they could only hit .211 in the more than 200 innings Lester threw during the regular season. He’s never been better in any of the past six years he’s gone to the postseason, and the 2.44 ERA Lester had during the season was the best of his 11-year career.
The biggest problem he’ll have is when Cleveland manages to get runners on base. Lester’s problems throwing to bases have been well documented, and the Indians stole 134 bases during 2016, the most of any team in the American League.
Having David Ross behind the dish is going to help as he has 21 career pickoffs while runners have been caught 35% of the time. Despite that, the Tribe is going to give Lester an issue that he hasn’t faced at all during the postseason to date and the southpaw will need to find a way to handle that.
He’s allowed just two stolen bases so far this postseason (both of which came in game five of the NLCS), and throughout his 19 career appearances in the playoffs, there has been just eight stolen bases against Lester.
Cleveland is a different animal, though, with Rajai Davis (43 stolen bases), Jose Ramirez (22), Francisco Lindor (19) and Jason Kipnis (15) all stealing more than 15 bases this year. Combine that with Coco Crisp who has a stolen base percentage of almost 80% including a career-high 49 steals in 2011, and the Indians will be able to keep Lester off guard all throughout their lineup.
RHP COREY KLUBER
Once a throw-in prospect from St. Louis in the Jake Westbrook trade of the 2010 deadline, Kluber has recently established himself as one of the more consistent starting pitchers going around. He’s been the ace of the Indians staff for the last couple of years now, and his breaking ball is going to cause plenty of problems for the Cubs hitters.
Pitching in his first ever postseason, Kluber has matched his opposing game one starter in almost every facet. In his only start against the Red Sox during the Division Series, the 30-year-old threw seven innings of three-hit, shutout ball in game one. He then went on to surrender just two earned runs in 11 1/3 innings against Toronto in the Championship Series.
During the regular season, Kluber made the first All-Star appearance of his six-year career after going 9-8 with a 3.61 ERA during the fist half. He lost just one game the rest of the year to equal his career-high of 18 victories. The right-hander wasn’t quite as good as the 2.44 ERA he held in 34 starts two years ago when he won the AL CY Young award, but he didn’t need to be with the rotation depth Cleveland had in 2016.
Kluber’s biggest issue will be how he handles the Cubs offense. Chicago has so many players capable of turning a game on its head, and they may be about to add another one of those guys to their roster if Kyle Schwarber plays as the DH as many expect him to.
He handled the Red Sox and Blue Jays earlier this month, but he’s struggled earlier in the season against the likes of Houston, Texas, Toronto and Boston.
The Cubs figure to go into the World Series with three catchers because Willson Contreras offers them some versatility with his ability to play left field. Contreras, Montero and David Ross will all get the opportunity to start behind the plate during the series, and you’ll see at least two of those guys in each game.
Contreras and Jorge Soler are the two big bats off the bench in game one, while Chris Coghlan and Albert Almora Jr. can be used as defensive replacements.
Based on the way the Indians have played in the opening two series of this postseason, they use their bench almost exclusively for defensive purposes. Coco Crisp and Tyler Naquin can both provide speed on the base paths, while Yan Gomes is a solid hitter. Michael Martinez has played 4 1/3 innings in center field this postseason, and is likely to come into the ballgame for defensive purposes late if Cleveland have the lead.
Aroldis Chapman has been a weapon for the Cubs since coming over at the trade deadline. He held just a 1.01 ERA with Chicago during the regular season and has gone on to allow just three runs across eight innings this postseason.
Hector Rondon (2 ER this postseason) and Pedro Strop (2 ER) serve as the setup men for Chapman, while Justin Grimm and Mike Montgomery also get regular usage. All of the Cubs relievers are well-rested having not played since game six of the NLCS on Saturday. During the Championship series the Cubs had four southpaw relievers in their bullpen, though with Cleveland having only three left-handed hitters on their roster it’s possible Rob Zastryzny might be forced out.
Cody Allen is the Indians closer, but Andrew Miller is easily the most talked about reliever in Cleveland’s bullpen. He’s thrown 11 2/3 scoreless innings already this postseason, striking out a whopping 21 batters or more than 50% of those he’s faced. In each of his six appearances in the 2016 postseason Miller has thrown more than an inning, and in four of those he’s gone at least two innings.
Allen meanwhile has five saves this postseason and hasn’t allowed a run in the 7 2/3 innings he’s thrown. Righties Bryan Shaw (3 ER) and Dan Otero (1 ER) also play important roles for manager Terry Francona. Interestingly, Miller is the only left-hander in Cleveland’s relief corps.
Like the Cubs bullpen, each of the Indians relievers are very well rested for the opening game of the 2016 World Series.
With both teams having at least a couple of days to rest and prepare, there’s no excuse for either the Cubs or Indians to lose this game. Corey Kluber and Jon Lester are two really good starting pitchers who won’t likely give much away, so the game might come down to which offence can score runs late against the bullpen.
You can make the case that the Cubs have more offense sitting on their bench, though Cleveland has the better bullpen. If the game does come down to what happens from the seventh inning onward, it’s going to make for one exciting battle that may not be decided in nine innings.
It’s worth noting that the last time the Cubs were in the World Series, Jackie Robinson had not yet made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s fitting then that Dexter Fowler (an African-American) will likely be the first batter to step to the plate in this series.
You can catch all the action in Game One from Progressive Field at 7:30 pm tonight on FOX.