The champagne has dried and the matchups are set. All that’s left is to throw the first pitch of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night.
All signs are pointing to this series being a dandy. The Cubs-Indians matchup is intriguing on multiple levels, and should turn this best-of-seven into must-watch baseball for die-hard and casual fans alike.
Before it all gets going, let’s take a look at four storylines to watch in the 2016 World Series.
Terry Francona and Joe Maddon know one another very well. From 2006-11 the pair locked horns frequently in the heavyweight AL East – Francona managing the Boston Red Sox, Maddon guiding the Tampa Bay Rays in what became a fairly hostile rivalry. The pair met in the 2008 ALCS, where Maddon’s Rays blew a 3-1 series lead, but held on to grab the franchise’s first pennant in Game 7 and eliminate the defending champion Red Sox. Three years later, the Rays snatched the AL wild card out of Boston’s hands with a memorable rally on the last day of the 2011 season, right as Francona’s Red Sox were busy completing an epic September collapse. Maddon’s remarkable Rays not only grabbed that playoff spot, but they ended Francona’s legendary eight-year tenure in Beantown.
While Maddon may have won some of those battles, Francona won the war in the form of two Red Sox championships to the Rays’ zero. Now, they meet again in different uniforms, and that old AL East fire is bound to show itself at some point. Both of these skippers have already crafted Hall of Fame-caliber resumes, and this series will serve to boost the Cooperstown credentials of both men – though only one will walk away with the prize.
Return of the wounded
When Kyle Schwarber tore his ACL and LCL in the Cubs’ third game of the season, the consensus was his 2016 campaign was over. No one in baseball even considered the possibility that Schwarber might recover quickly in six months, then suddenly show up in the Arizona Fall League on a rehab assignment that could foreshadow a remarkable return in the Fall Classic. Schwarber’s not going to play the field if he does return, and would be a wild card given he’s only played one game – on Saturday, in the AFL – since April, but could find his way back as a DH in Cleveland and left-handed, pinch-hitting option against the Indians’ overwhelmingly right-handed bullpen.
Cleveland also has a potential return to be happy about in the form of starter Danny Salazar. Forearm tightness has sidelined the right-hander since Sept. 9, but he’s been quietly working his way back, and even threw a simulated game in Toronto during the ALCS. What’s unclear is if Salazar would start or go to the bullpen if he returns; the Indians could really use him in the rotation if possible, given Trevor Bauer’s drone-related finger issues and Carlos Carrasco’s absence that forced Francona to start untested rookie Ryan Merritt in Game 5 of the ALCS (although that worked out just fine). The baseball world will be watching to see if either Schwarber or Salazar make it back in time, and their contributions – if any are made – could prove pivotal in the swing of the series either way.
Miller vs. Chapman
Back in the winter, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had a vision of Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman pitching in the same World Series. Cashman’s vision has come true, though he can’t be happy about it. Both players were dealt by the Yankees at this year’s trade deadline; now Miller and Chapman are set to face off in opposing bullpens for a championship. Chapman had a few rough spots, but his 100-plus mph gas remains mostly untouchable at the back end of the Cubs’ bullpen, while Miller’s turned into an untouchable super-reliever for the Indians who can be deployed in any key inning.
The battle between these two former teammates will be fun to watch over the next week – well, at least it’ll be fun for everybody who doesn’t root for the Yankees.
Before Game 1 gets underway Cleveland will watch the NBA’s Cavaliers get their 2015-16 championship rings; it was the city’s first pro sports title since 1964. The Indians franchise’s drought goes back longer, to 1948, when Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Larry Doby, and Lou Boudreau led the Tribe to their second and most recent World Series title. Since then the Indians have appeared in three World Series, but none since 1997, and Cleveland baseball fans are yearning to erase those painful memories.
Standing in Cleveland’s way, however, are the Cubs, who have been in a bit of a championship dry spell of their own. You may have heard about it. There’s a billy goat involved – or, there was until Saturday night – and its origin dates back to 1908, when they had a pitcher with three fingers and played in a ballpark made of wood. These are the two longest championship droughts in baseball, and they add up to a combined 176 years of waiting. One fan base is going to be dancing in the streets, while the other will go empty-handed yet again. You can already feel the collars tightening across the Chicagoland area and Northeast Ohio.