By Mike Ellis
The journey was supposed to be easy.--That's right, according to many baseball experts, the Chicago Cubs--a franchise that had amassed the longest championship drought in the history of American professional team sports--were supposed to have a relatively comfortable path to the World Series in 2016.
But for a team that won 103 games during the regular season laden with young talent in the lineup and experience and depth in the pitching rotation, it was ultimately an unwavering confidence and belief that contributed more to the Cubs winning one of the closest World Series ever contested than any qualities that could be measured by experts.
Coming off of a 97-win season and appearance in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) in 2015, the North Side was a popular free-agent destination in the offseason, as the Cubs signed outfielders Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, and veteran starting pitcher John Lackey, mixing postseason experience with a youth movement led by first baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant.
The regular season went as many anticipated, as the Cubs cruised to their first National League Central title since 2008, leaving the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates in the rear-view mirror.
But as the postseason commenced, it quickly became apparent that Chicago's path to the World Series would be rife with obstacles, as they opened against the San Francisco Giants (2010, 2012 and 2014 world champions) in the National League Division Series (NLDS).
Game 1 of the NLDS served as a precursor to the drama that would follow throughout the postseason. Aces Jon Lester and Johnny Cueto dueled through seven scoreless innings, until the Cubs' Javier Baez hit a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth inning that reached the left-field basket to lift his team to a 1-0 victory.
After Chicago took a 2-0 lead with a 5-2 win in Game 2, the series shifted to the Bay Area, and San Francisco wasn't about to bow out quietly. The Cubs appeared on their way to a sweep in Game 3, taking a 3-0 lead in the second innings, but the Giants chipped away at starter Jake Arrieta, before rallying against the Cubs bullpen to take a 5-3 advantage in the eighth inning. Bryant homered to tie the game in the ninth, but ultimately, it was the Giants that stayed alive on a walk-off double by Joe Panik in the 13th inning.
San Francisco built on its momentum in Game 4, and the series appeared to be headed back to Wrigley Field when the home team led 5-2 after eight innings. But a questionable bullpen that hampered the Giants throughout the season proved to be their undoing, as the Cubs mounted a miraculous four-run rally in the top of the ninth inning, capped off by an RBI single by Willson Contreras, to win the series, 3-1.
In the NLCS, the Cubs would square off against another traditional National League power, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 2016 iteration of the Dodgers was not the typical, star-studded roster of yesteryear, but rather a gritty, pesky team led by baseball's best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw.
After a Miguel Montero grand slam helped to propel Chicago to an 8-4 win in Game 1, Los Angeles suddenly seized the momentum with back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3.
With the Dodgers leading 2-1, the Cubs opened Game 4 visibly nervous at the plate, but the second time through the order, the lineup pummeled 20-year-old L.A. starter Julio Urias, and went on to cruise to a 10-2 victory.
Game 5, the last game in Los Angeles, followed a similar pattern, with Lester holding the Dodgers to one run over six innings, before the Chicago lineup exploded in the eighth inning for five runs. The Cubs won the game, 8-4, and headed back to Wrigley with a chance to clinch their first National League pennant since 1945.
On a brisk Saturday evening, only Kershaw stood in the way of a trip to the World Series. After failing to score off the Dodgers ace in Game 2, Dexter Fowler led off Game 6 with a double, and was driven in by Bryant. Leading 2-0 after the first inning, the Cubs did not allow luck or untimely errors to enter into the outcome, as they chased Kershaw from the game after five innings, while starter Kyle Hendricks held Los Angeles scoreless for 7 1/3 innings. Leading 5-0 in the ninth inning, the Cubs punctuated their first pennant in 71 years with a double play to end the game.
One obstacle remained in the way of the North-Siders achieving their ultimate goal--and that obstacle would be the toughest opponent the Cubs would face in the 2016 playoffs: the American League-champion Cleveland Indians.
While some questioned Cleveland's ability to compete with the All-Star-filled Cubs without two of their starting pitchers and a key position player, the Indians relied on the formula that pushed them past Boston and Toronto: build a lead after six innings, and turn the game over to nasty relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
Implementing this formula, Cleveland built a 3-1 series lead, including a pair of wins at Wrigley Field in Games 3 and 4. And after their commanding 7-2 victory over the Cubs in Game 4, the Indians had flipped the expected narrative of the World Series, and appeared on the verge of their first world championship since 1948.
Meanwhile, in the Cubs clubhouse, questions abounded: were they too inexperienced and impatient at the plate--was Cleveland better built to win a short playoff series?
In a must-win Game 5, Chicago once again turned to Lester, and demonstrated the perseverance of a team that would not go down quietly. Trailing 1-0 entering the bottom of the fourth inning, Bryant got a hold of a Trevor Bauer pitch, and belted it out to left-center field, tying the score. The Cubs would go on to score two more runs in the inning, and clung to a 3-2 advantage late, as closer Aroldis Chapman held the Indians at bay in 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief.
As the series shifted back to Cleveland for Game 6, scarcely anyone could have imagined that the Indians had held their last lead in the series in the fourth inning of Game 5.
Shortstop Addison Russell and communication in the Cleveland outfield headlined Game 6, as Russell knocked in two runs on a ball that dropped between Indians center-fielder Tyler Naquin and right-fielder Lonnie Chisenhall, before hitting the first grand slam in World Series play since Paul Konerko in 2005 in the third inning. A 9-3 Cubs win forced a decisive Game 7.
For two franchises that had waited a combined 176 years for a World Series title, a winner-take-all Game 7 was both an exciting and painful prospect. While one club would prevail in thrilling fashion, the other would have to wait at least another year for a championship, while adding 2016 to its aggregated misery.
In Game 7, the Cubs played like the "Cubs" of bygone years at times, committing three errors, allowing two runs to score on a wild pitch, and relinquishing a lead just four outs from a world title. But the outcome of this game--which would also determine the outcome of the season--would be different.
Fowler led off the game with a home run against Cleveland ace Corey Kluber. After some scoreless frames, the Indians knotted the score at 1-1 in the third inning. In the top of the fourth, the Cubs retook the lead with a pair of runs on a sacrifice fly and RBI double by Contreras, and then doubled their advantage to 5-1 in the fifth inning, behind a Baez solo home run that knocked Kluber out of the game.
Seemingly having completely lost control of the series, Cleveland began to turn the momentum in the bottom of the fifth. Designated hitter Carlos Santana walked with two outs, and Cubs manager Joe Maddon replaced Hendricks with Lester. Second baseman Jason Kipnis then put the ball in play in front of the plate, and catcher David Ross's throw sailed past Rizzo, placing runners at second and third. Facing Francisco Lindor, Lester fired a ball that bounced well in front of home plate that got past Ross, allowing not one, but two runs to score, as the Indians trimmed the gap to 5-3.
After Ross--playing his final game--homered in the top of the sixth to re-extend the Chicago advantage to three runs, Lester pitched a scoreless sixth and seventh innings, as the Cubs moved just six outs from their first World Series since 1908.
With two outs and no one on base, Cleveland's Jose Ramirez started an improbable rally with an infield single. Maddon lifted Lester for Chapman, whom the Indians benefited from facing in both Games 5 and 6. Left-fielder Brandon Guyer battled to a 3-2 count, before drilling a line-drive to right-center field, scoring Ramirez from first base. This set the stage for center-fielder Rajai Davis, who after fouling off several pitches, golfed a 2-2 pitch down and in for a line-drive home run over the left-field fence that tied the game at 6-6 in the blink of an eye.
After the teams exchanged scoreless ninth-inning frames, Game 7 of the World Series entered extra innings for the first time since 1991. The game was paused for a 17-minute rain delay, and resumed with designated hitter Kyle Schwarber singling sharply off of Cleveland reliever Brian Shaw to lead off the tenth. Following an intentional walk to Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, who had won a World Series with the Kansas City Royals in 2015, delivered the go-ahead double into left field. A Montero single extended the Cubs' lead to 8-6, before Bauer entered the game and held the bases loaded. In the bottom of the 10th, Guyer and Davis again collaborated to trim the deficit to 8-7, but the Indians had run out of miracles, as Mike Montgomery induced right-fielder Michael Martinez to ground softly to Bryant, who flipped the ball to Rizzo for the final out, as the Cubs clinched their first World Series championship in 108 years.