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What if the Cubs had blown Game 7 in 2016?

@williamfleitch
December 18, 2020

Welcome to What If?, an occasional feature in which we look at a major moment in baseball history and try to track what would have happened if the moment went differently than it did. Previously, we looked at What If Albert Pujols Had Never Left the Cardinals? Today’s What If?

Welcome to What If?, an occasional feature in which we look at a major moment in baseball history and try to track what would have happened if the moment went differently than it did. Previously, we looked at What If Albert Pujols Had Never Left the Cardinals? Today’s What If? scenario: What if the Indians had scored off Aroldis Chapman in the ninth inning of 2016 World Series Game 7?

I was at Progressive Field on Nov. 2, 2016, and I’ll confess: I thought it was over in the bottom of the ninth.

For most of the night, it looked like a coronation for the Chicago Cubs, the night they were finally going to reverse the Billy Goat Curse. Dexter Fowler had homered in the first at-bat of the game, they had a 5-1 lead in the sixth and a 6-3 lead in the eighth, Bill Murray and Eddie Vedder were in the stands and ready to celebrate. And then the eighth inning came. Jon Lester, who came on in relief of starter Kyle Hendricks, might have been left in a skosh too long, now that I look at it. Lester got the first two batters, but then José Ramírez singled. Cubs manager Joe Maddon brought in Aroldis Chapman, who had pitched an inning and a third while throwing 20 pitches just the night before, to face Brandon Guyer. Guyer doubled in Ramírez, cutting the lead to two. And then Rajai Davis, slap-hitting, base-stealing Rajai Davis, came to the plate and did this:

I think LeBron James' flexing in the stands -- just a couple of hours after he’d played his first game as a Cleveland champion, right across the street -- is my favorite bit there. I thought it was over. And I really thought it was over when, rather inexplicably, Maddon decided to stay with Chapman in the bottom of the ninth. Chapman was so exhausted that he threw almost entirely curveballs, facing Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor. He went 3-2 on the first two batters, both of whom were clearly trying to hit a walk-off homer that would launch them into history (and Kipnis appeared to maybe come close), and Lindor flied out on the first pitch of his at-bat. Then the 10th inning came, and there was a rain delay, and we all remember what happened after that.

But it still is stunning to me: The Indians absolutely should have scored off Chapman in the ninth. It was all set up to happen. But it didn’t. But what if it had?

Here’s what might have resulted.

1. The Indians are the ones that break through, not the Cubs. The grand fun of the 2016 World Series was that someone was going to end decades of suffering, and while the Cubs being the team that did so became the biggest sports story of the year, it would have been pretty massive if the Indians had won their first World Series since 1948, too. It would have been particularly exciting for Cleveland considering the Cavs had just won their first title a few months earlier. LeBron -- who, again, was in the building -- would receive credit not just for winning a title for the Cavs, but for releasing the whole city from its decades-long curse. Could the Browns be next?

2. Francisco Lindor becomes an untradeable franchise legend. Sure, this one supposes that it’s Lindor who gets the big hit off Chapman, but, wow, it was right there for him, wasn’t it? Imagine 22-year-old Lindor, already the most popular player on the team, hitting a walk-off to win the World Series for Cleveland. They’d have to extend him right there, wouldn’t they? Lindor would instantly become, what, the Cal Ripken Jr. of Cleveland? The Ozzie Smith? The George Brett? He’s the guy who hit a walk-off homer to win the World Series for the Cleveland Indians at the age of 22? How in the world could you ever let him wear another uniform after that?

3. Rajai Davis takes his rightful place in history. The Cubs’ title was such an incredible story that it blotted out anything else from that Series, which is a shame, because, as I’ve written, that Rajai Davis homer is one of the most incredible baseball things I’ve ever seen. (I actually jumped up and down and started playfully punching the reporter sitting next to me in the press box, even though I’d never met him before and haven’t spoken with him since. He probably hates me.) Davis’ homer is one of the truly jaw-dropping baseball moments ever, and the only reason we’re not talking about it the way we talk about, say, David Freese’s 2011 heroics is because Cleveland lost. But if they score off Chapman in the ninth, Davis’ homer isn’t forgotten: Instead, it’s the moment that pulled them back from the brink. He’s not Joe Carter. But he’s Kirk Gibson?

4. Joe Maddon gets a lot of heat and is maybe never the same. Maddon, totally justifiably, will go down in history as the manager who finally won a World Series for the Cubs, no matter what he does the rest of his career. But if you were watching this World Series in real time, there were many, many reasons to cock your eyebrow at some of Maddon’s moves, particularly those involving his bullpen and his overuse of Chapman. That Chapman was brought out again for the ninth, even though he’d just given up the Davis homer, even though it was his fifth game in the Series and he had thrown 1 1/3 innings in a blowout the previous night, even though he was so tired he couldn’t even throw his fastball ... it was absolutely inexplicable in the moment. Maddon got away with it, barely, and the Cubs went on to win. But it’s not difficult to see how, if this had gone the other way, he’s Grady Little.

5. That Cubs team goes down in history, too, but for the wrong reason. Before that 2016 World Series, the two worst years you could say to a Cubs fan were “1984” and “2003.” Those years involved the Cubs getting enticingly, irresistibly close to a World Series but falling just short, in the most random ways imaginable. (Leon Durham, Steve Bartman, Alex Gonzalez.) But none of them had come as close to a title and fallen just short as the 2016 Cubs would have, after rallying from a 3-1 Series deficit, no less. It would have instantly become the most painful moment in Chicago sports history, an unspeakable cruelty: To have the rug pulled out from the Cubs, this Cubs team, so violently and suddenly, would be a new level of Cubs fan pain. How could they ever get over it?

6. The Cubs go even more all-in for 2017. To their credit, after the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, they did not sit on their laurels. They actually brought in reinforcements, trading away Eloy Jiménez and Jorge Soler for José Quintana and Wade Davis, respectively. (A year after trading away Gleyber Torres. Imagine those three on the same team right now.) But if they had fallen that short in 2016, can you imagine how aggressive they would have been? They still probably would have let free agent Chapman go -- what with the walk-off homer he gave up to lose the World Series -- but are they less likely to allow, say, Fowler to walk if they hadn’t won in 2016? Maddon’s famous phrase about Fowler was “You go, we go,” and if the Cubs had lost in 2016, would the Cubs really let him go to St. Louis? (Alternately: Imagine how different Cardinals history the last five years would be if they never sign Fowler.) Do they go big on top free-agent catcher Matt Wieters? Do they explore even bigger trades? It’s difficult to imagine a team being more aggressive than the Cubs would have been had they come that close and fallen just short.

7. The Cubs never win the World Series. At all. When I left Wrigley Field on Oct. 29, after Cleveland’s 9-2 Game 4 win over the Cubs, giving them a 3-1 Series lead, the general fan vibe was sadness, but also positivity: After all, the Cubs were young, and they’d be just as good next year. This wasn’t a one-year project; it was a dynasty. But it didn’t really turn out that way, did it? They were good again in 2017, but still almost lost to the Nationals in the National League Division Series and, more to the point, were beaten in the NL Championship Series by a Dodgers team that clearly had passed them as the NL’s next dominant force. In 2018, they didn’t even make it out of the Wild Card Game, in 2019 they missed the playoffs entirely, and in 2020 they were swept in a special new playoff round by the Marlins. Looking back at it now, seeing how the Cubs aged, seeing how certain players never did quite turn into the Hall of Famers we all thought they’d be ... the 2016 Cubs seem less like the start of a dynasty than an aberration, one year where everything landed just right.

So what would have happened if Cleveland had scored off Chapman in the bottom of the ninth? I bet the Cubs never do get that title. And in 2021, with all their stars facing free agency and a rebuild looming, they find themselves shaking their heads about how not even Theo Epstein, the guy who ended the Curse of the Bambino, could save their century-plus of misery. You’d have to wonder if they were ever going to do it.

Cubs fans don’t have to live in that history. But boy, it sure was close.