Major League Baseball has a dream matchup for the 2016 World Series. On one side, you have the Chicago Cubs, owners of the saddest postseason history imaginable and title winners most recently in 1908. In the opposite corner, you have the Cleveland Indians, who last raised a championship flag in 1948.
Besides the obvious appeal for suffering fanbases, baseball has two likable teams opposing one another. Instead of a “big bad wolf” franchise like the New York Yankees or the high-spending Dodgers of the West Coast, the average fan finds only a few grating things about the Cubs and almost nothing to dislike about the Indians. So may the best team win — and some area of the Midwest will walk away happy.
With Chicago’s roster at full strength and firing on all cylinders, we like their chances, but this Indians club took long odds and crushed them twice this postseason already. Chances are it won’t come down to the No. 1 starters or the All-Star Cubs infielders. These five players will decide this year’s Fall Classic.
1. Josh Tomlin
If Cleveland’s starters were healthy, we doubt Josh Tomlin would be part of Terry Francona’s postseason rotations. As it stands, even fallback starter Trevor Bauer is questionable for the 2016 World Series following a drone strike. The desperate situation makes Tomlin a major factor against the Cubs.
In two postseason starts against excellent American League lineups, Tomlin answered the bell, allowing 3 ER in 10.2 IP. The 32-year-old right-hander needs to spin his magic at least one more time if the Indians hope to walk away with a title. Even five or six innings of quality ball works with Cleveland’s bullpen behind him.
2. Jake Arrieta
Jake Arrieta built the reputation as a mostly unhittable pitcher over the last few seasons, but the right-hander has not carried that dominance into the postseason by any stretch. He’s allowed 4 ER in three of his five playoff starts and has an even (2-2) record to go along with a 4.11 ERA.
In other words, he’s a legitimate target for the Indians in Game 2. Cleveland is dealing with postseason ace Jon Lester in Game 1 and the tough-to-crack Kyle Hendricks in Game 3. The Tribe’s best shot is to take out Arrieta and swing the series in its direction moving to Wrigley for the middle games of the series.
3. Andrew Miller
What else can you say about Andrew Miller’s performances in the 2016 postseason? The lefty made mincemeat of Boston hitters in the ALDS, and then followed with 7.2 IP of perfect ball (14 SO) as he nabbed the ALCS MVP against Toronto. He’s evolved from X-Factor status to the greatest bullpen weapon in the postseason.
Against the Cubs, Miller may face his toughest test yet. Chicago’s powerful, patient lineup led the league with 141 extra-base hits against lefties in 2016. But you can throw those numbers out the window if Miller executes his slider, which may be the game’s toughest pitch.
4. Mike Napoli
The Chicago offense proved it can hit the world’s best pitcher hard enough to clinch a trip to the 2016 World Series. With that out of the way, every Indians pitcher is a step down for the Cubs. Batters in the other dugout will have a tougher test to pass. Indians hitters struggled against Toronto’s deep rotation but managed to hit enough home runs to take the ALCS in five.
Mike Napoli, one of the oldest Cleveland players and the club’s spiritual leader, must pick up his production in the World Series. Napoli was largely absent in the ALDS (.167, 0 RBI); the team only felt his presence in one game (HR, 2B, 2 RBI), against Toronto. As the veteran force, the slugging right-hander needs to take pressure off the young Indians hitters and shift it onto Chicago pitchers.
5. Aroldis Chapman
Andrew Miller proves to be the better pickup of the two relievers the Yankees traded to contenders at the deadline. While Aroldis Chapman is certainly a dominant force in the pen for Chicago, the fastest gun in the game allowed 10 baserunners and 3 ER in 8.0 IP in the first two postseason series. Were it not for the porous Giants bullpen, Chapman would have been saddled with a loss in the NLDS as well.
With such a strong rotation, Cubs manager Joe Maddon does not have the same bullpen needs as his opponent. However, Chapman needs to lock down multiple games this World Series. Indians players have an opportunity to take advantage of his tendency to rattle with men on base and the big lefty’s poor fielding skills. If it can force a blown save on the Cuban Missile, the Series will swing Cleveland’s way.
Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com
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