When a team makes it to the World Series, it’s probably best that they– hold on. Let me re-start that. When a team has one of the best regular seasons in major league history and then goes on to make it to the World Series, it’s probably best that that team continues playing in a similar fashion to the way they played up until that point. That is, if they’re interested in capitalizing on that regular season by winning the World Series. The Cubs are very interested in that proposition.
All along, of course, these Cubs have been interested, but through the first four games of this World Series, we didn’t see as much of the regular season Cubs as we expected. The world-beating Cubs. We certainly didn’t see those Cubs in Games Three and Four at Wrigley, when Cleveland pushed Chicago’s backs to the wall by outscoring them 8-3 in two games on their home turf to take a 3-1 series lead. But in Game Five’s potential Cleveland clincher, Chicago’s last home game of the year, they gave their fans one last taste of what their historical season looked like, whether that history is rewarded with a World Series victory or not.
These Cubs all year played defense. That defense, along with their pitching staff, turned balls in play into outs as well as most any team in baseball history. Saturday’s Game Four loss featured two errors, and they led to early runs. The night before, the game’s only run came on a ball that dropped feet in front of Jorge Soler and was preceded by a wild pitch that put the go-ahead run 90 feet away from home. The Cubs looked sloppy in their losses, and the Cubs haven’t looked sloppy all year.
The Cubs went back to not being sloppy in Sunday’s 3-2 win. Let’s take a trip around the diamond.
For as much that gets made about Jon Lester and holding baserunners, it’s actually pretty tough to steal off him and battery-mate David Ross. Ask Francisco Lindor, who’s learned that the hard way not once, but twice this series.
This is all just so Cubsy. You see Lester staring down a runner who’s practically standing over second base already, and he doesn’t do a dang thing about it. Except for deliver the ball home in about 1.2 seconds to David Ross, who gets it to second in a remarkable 1.7 seconds. And then there’s Javier Baez, who’s probably responsible for shaving two-tenths of a second off Ross’ already elite pop time by doing Baez things: positioning himself in front of the bag — whereas most second baseman would wait on top of it — to get the ball into his glove faster, and then letting the ball travel into his glove, as his glove travels into Lindor.
All three parties here deserve credit for their remarkable parts in this caught stealing, which was huge, by the way. Lindor represented the tying run in Jon Lester’s final inning with Cleveland’s best hitter against left-handed pitching at the plate, with formidable bats in Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez waiting after him. Two-tenths of a second more by anyone involved — Lester in his delivery, Ross in his exchange, Baez with his positioning and application — and the tying run is scoring on a single. Instead, Napoli led off the next inning with the bases empty against a hard-throwing righty.
That’s three Cubs players who contributed defensively. Let’s keep moving around the infield.
That’s Jose Ramirez busting ass down the line on a ball that’s an infield hit more often than it’s not, runners on the corners with no outs down two more often than not, that instead turned into runner-on-third-one-out-and-this-inning-ended-up-being-scoreless because Addison Russell improvised with his arm slot and showed David Ross that he’s not the only one with an elite pop time. And with all that Russell did, we’re back to runners on the corners with no outs down two, and probably worse, if not for Rizzo’s pick, one of the little things he does consistently that make him an elite defensive first baseman even without the flashy diving plays and catches made while climbing over the tarp.
Speaking of which, let’s move on over to third.
That ball came off Brandon Guyer’s bat at 95 mph, right down the line. That ball went right into Kris Bryant’s glove, as he dove into foul territory. That ball went right into Rizzo’s glove, as he stretched and scooped. The scoops, man. The scoops.
Hey, Jason Heyward played.
Yeah, turns out he didn’t have to climb the wall. Under normal circumstances, this could’ve been a routine catch. Not normal circumstances, though. It was another windy night in Chicago. If any right fielder knows how to read a ball off a bat, it’s Jason Heyward, and the read off this bat was one row foul, within reach. The wind brought it back three row’s lengths toward the field, and Heyward adjusted in a way that few other right fielders would.
Even Ben Zobrist was making sneaky good plays in left:
That’s the kind of play that usually doesn’t get appreciated in real time by viewers, but goes a long way within a dugout and within a clubhouse.
“Don’t understatement how important that play was that Zobrist made keeping that a single,” manager Joe Maddon said. “A lot of times that would have turned into a double. That was a great play by Zo. Eventually we kept them from scoring.”
That’s every player but the center fielder contributing something “plus” in a one-run World Series win. I’m a big fan of the term “run prevention unit,” because as much as a Gold Glove Award insinuates the pinnacle of defensive achievement as being an individual task, defense is often played on the team-level, which isn’t always apparent in the game of baseball. On Sunday night, the Cubs played team defense. Three men played crucial roles in a crucial caught stealing. A first baseman helped ensure two fantastic plays actually turn into outs. How often do you see the diving play that should’ve been out, if only? For the Cubs, the should’ve been outs become outs. The Cubs played team defense.
Hell, they even used two guys to catch a pop fly:
The return to status quo didn’t just occur in the field. It occurred at the plate. The Cubs chased, uncharacteristically, throughout the first four games of this series. During the regular season, they ran one of baseball’s lowest team chase rates. According to BaseballSavant, they offered at 31% of pitches outside the strike zone. In the first four games, that rate spiked by 30%, helping lead to their lowest four-game stretch of run production all season.
And, while Javier Baez has reminded us all that he’s still very much an incomplete package with his plate discipline in this series, Kris Bryant got back to laying off the low-and-away breaking pitch and had himself a game:
Ben Zobrist was flawless:
The Cubs chased just 28% of Cleveland’s offerings outside of the zone, getting back under their elite season total.
And then they pitched, too. Lester Lester’d, and the back-end of the bullpen shut the door with three dominant innings the way they did for much of the regular season, except this time, it was just all Aroldis Chapman. That’s the one way the Cubs didn’t look like themselves on Sunday night, but for Cubs fans, that was a deviation from the norm that was finally welcome.
The Cubs now head back to Cleveland, fresh off a reminder of why they were the best team in baseball. Are the best team in baseball. The deficit is still very real, and the Indians are still very much favorites in the series. The Cubs remain the team most likely to play the closest thing to a perfect game of baseball. And perfect isn’t even required to win two more games.