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Game 7 capped '16 with magical masterpiece

Cubs-Indians' Series-deciding clash among MLB's most memorable stories
MLB.com @castrovince

CLEVELAND -- The last piece of plastic had just been hung. Here, in the late haze of an unseasonably warm early November night, roughly 20 people -- a collection of clubhouse employees, ballpark maintenance workers and Major League Baseball personnel -- had done their diligent and scoreboard-appropriate work to turn the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field into the soon-to-be-champagne-soaked stage where 108 years of angst and agony would be literally wiped away.

All proper signage and security had been accounted for, and this now-plastic-wrapped room was four outs away from serving its party purpose.

CLEVELAND -- The last piece of plastic had just been hung. Here, in the late haze of an unseasonably warm early November night, roughly 20 people -- a collection of clubhouse employees, ballpark maintenance workers and Major League Baseball personnel -- had done their diligent and scoreboard-appropriate work to turn the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field into the soon-to-be-champagne-soaked stage where 108 years of angst and agony would be literally wiped away.

All proper signage and security had been accounted for, and this now-plastic-wrapped room was four outs away from serving its party purpose.

:: Take 10: Top stories of 2016 ::

Then, Cubs lefty Aroldis Chapman threw a 97 mph four-seamer at the knees of Indians speedster Rajai Davis, who smacked a frozen rope toward the left-field corner that carried, carried, carried and, stunningly, cleared the 19-foot-wall.

With the ballpark shaking and its denizens -- an unusually even assortment of both home and away fans -- either stomping their feet in celebration or putting hands to head in stunned disbelief, the group assembled in the visitor's locker room had no time to process those two sixes in the runs column.

"We've got to get to the home side!" somebody yelled.

And off they sprinted down the concrete hall in the bowels of the building, to the Tribe's side, where another, more slapdash round of plastic-wrapping began.

Game 7, already destined to be a classic purely because of its historical significance, had just become an epic on its own on-the-field merits.

Video: WS2016 Gm7: Davis ties game with clutch two-run homer

It has been 60 days since the Cubs and Indians gave us this winner-take-all wonder on a Wednesday night, 60 days since the Cubs overcame Davis' late-inning heroics and their own organizational aura of error to complete their 8-7, 10-inning, rain-delay-aided victory and 2016 saga.

We have ventured into a new year now, one that will uncover its own heroes and make its own magic.

But pardon us if we can't fare into the future without one more round of applause for the recent past, for a single, solitary night of baseball that heartened, haunted or simply stimulated all those who witnessed it either in the stadium, on the screen or via the frenzied, thumb-perking power of social media.

It's a story that will forever be worth re-telling.

The setup

That 4-hour, 28-minute Game 7 was an instant classic, but it was a messy masterpiece. And in it, the weight of history, the urgency of the occasion, the authority of Mother Nature and the two clubs that were, unpredictably, evenly matched all congealed in a landscape of awesome absurdity.

Begin with the stakes themselves -- the Cubs' Major League-leading 108-year curse juxtaposed against the Indians' own American League-leading 68-year wait. That the game's two most formidable famines encountered each other on the Series stage made for easy marketing. That the Series itself went the distance, with the finale extended to an extra inning that itself was delayed by rain, was both unfathomable and absolutely appropriate.

But there was more.

The Indians had held a 3-1 edge in this Series, something 40 teams in 45 tries had turned into a title in a best-of-seven. But 3-1 was the very deficit the next-door-neighbor Cavaliers had overcome in June's NBA Finals, which had delivered this city its first major professional title in 54 years.

The Cubs mounted their own comeback when Chapman got eight clutch outs on a chilly Sunday night at Wrigley Field in Game 5, and when an opportune offense steamrolled its way to a 9-3 win on the first night of November.

Video: Must C Classic: Russell ties WS record with six RBIs

That gave us the Game 7 this Series deserved.

The game-time temperature was 69 degrees, both encouraging a local "Indian(s) Summer" sentiment and disproving the theory that November baseball is a negative.

Instead, another upstart theory -- that the World Series should be played on a neutral stage -- was oddly put into practice. Cubs fans put a lifetime's worth of savings to good use on the secondary market to scoop up what could reasonably be estimated to be 50 percent of seats. And so, if you were in the building and had only your ears to inform you of the events taking place on the field, you legitimately would not know if what happened on the fourth pitch of the ballgame was good or bad for the local nine.

It was bad. Dexter Fowler sent Corey Kluber's 2-1 offering over the wall in dead center.

"They've been telling me all year," Fowler would say later, "'You go, we go.'"

Up the Cubs went, 1-0.

Video: Must C Classic: Fowler leads off Game 7 with a homer

The Indians would answer in the third, on a Carlos Santana RBI single off Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks. But from there, more Cubs clout arose. Kluber was operating on short rest for the second time in the Series and the third time in the postseason, an applaudable effort at overcoming the injuries that had ravaged a once-stellar starting staff. But he was out of gas, and the Cubs' engine was revving when a two-run fourth and then a Javier Baez leadoff shot in the fifth threatened to break it all open.

With that, Tribe manager Terry Francona turned to lefty reliever Andrew Miller, not to lock down a lead -- as he had done throughout an improbable run for the depleted AL Central champs -- but to put the Cubs on pause. Alas, Miller, too, was on fumes. His awesome run was stunted by Kris Bryant's two-out walk and Anthony Rizzo's RBI single. 

It was 4-1 Cubs at what amounted to the midway mark.

Video: WS2016 Gm7: Rizzo lines RBI single to right field

But the Indians, despite their cavalcade of defensive mistakes that contributed to the Cubs' efforts, had come too far to go quietly into the night. In the bottom of the fifth with no outs, Santana walked, prompting Cubs manager Joe Maddon to make the controversial call to the 'pen to remove MLB's regular-season ERA leader at just 63 pitches and replace him with … Jon Lester?

Yes, Lester, the Cubs' $155 million man, was summoned to make just the fourth relief appearance of his life and first in nine years.

"In my mind, in a situation like that," Maddon would say, "if you leave Kyle in and Kipnis hits a two-run homer with Jonny warmed up, that's when you get upset with yourself. And furthermore, it's not every day you have Jonny Lester warming up in your bullpen in the seventh game of a World Series."

It was a wild idea that produced a wild result. Jason Kipnis produced a swinging-bunt single, and catcher David Ross' errant throw to first put both Kipnis and Santana in scoring position. Then, Lester uncorked a wild pitch that bounced off the dirt, caromed off Ross' dome and sent Kipnis on a mad dash from second. When Kipnis, the Chicago native, scored behind Santana, he pumped his fist and sent the home half of the crowd into a tizzy.

"That was like new life for us," Davis would say. "New energy."

It was 5-3.

Video: Must C Curious: Indians score two on wild pitch

The insanity

Now, quickly, a word about sports.

When an unquestioned great does something unquestionably great -- Michael Jordan hitting that clincher against the Jazz, Joe Montana finding John Taylor for the TD that won Super Bowl XXIII or Tiger Woods completing his own sort of Slam -- it is a special thing.

But there are other means of momentousness. Sometimes a journeyman career backup has a sudden showing of incomprehensible indomitability. Sometimes sport takes a relatively "old" man and gives him one brilliant burst of youthful spunk. Sometimes a player whose previous actions have threatened to upend his club's effort gets a chance to turn from goat to G.O.A.T. and seizes it. 

And sometimes, in the case of Ross hitting a solo homer off the previously untouchable Miller in the sixth, all of those things happen at once, and his stunned look as he rounded the bases was shared by all of us.

"You'd be stunned, too," Ross would say, "if you had my swing."

It was 6-3.

Video: WS2016 Gm7: Ross laces 103.9-mph solo homer in 6th

So now, with the Cubs' inexhaustibility quite clear and Lester recovering to mow through the Tribe lineup in the sixth and seventh, the postgame prep could push forward. Now the plastic could be hung, the trophy prepared. Now the Cubs-loving half of the crowd could order up a seemingly celebratory round at last call.

But everything said above about the wonder of sport would hold true in the eighth, as well. And maybe, even in the afterglow of a championship and a record-setting relief contract, Chapman had a point recently about his postseason usage. Maybe too much was asked of the big lefty. What the reliever needs to understand, though, is that without the unique mystique of Chapman, what happened next loses so much of its luster.

What happened next is that Chapman was summoned with two out, one on and the Cubs' four outs from ecstasy. And a little-known lefty killer strode to the plate in the form of Brandon Guyer, the Indians' other, less-heralded Trade Deadline acquisition who smoked a double to the gap in right-center field to bring Jose Ramirez home and bring Davis to the plate for what became a seven-pitch duel with Chapman.

"It's me and Chapman," Davis thought to himself. "I'm going to win this battle." 

And when he did? Magic. Pure magic, when Davis reached down and made the contact that tied this tilt.

Video: Must C Comeback: Indians rally to tie Game 7

Progressive Field was no longer a ballpark; it was a sanatorium at recess, with LeBron James perhaps best illustrating the revelry of the Tribe faithful with his biceps-flexing roar in front of his suite seat and the Cubs crowd, which included superfans Bill Murray and Eddie Vedder, suddenly wondering if they'd come all this way, paid all this money to watch one of the more epic collapses in the history of the game.

Davis, an aged vet known far more for his fleet feet and slap-hitting than his homer trot, was only in the lineup because, the previous night, rookie center-fielder Tyler Naquin had let a pop fly drop in for a two-run double. So for Davis to give us a long ball that at least one analysis concludes to be the third-most pivotal play in World Series history was improbable, to say the least. 

Video: WS2016 Gm7: Statcast™ measures Davis' clutch home run

The storm that ended a drought

Far more probable was the rain.

It was in the forecast; that's why first pitch had been pushed up eight minutes. And shortly after Davis' blast, the first burst of rain arrived, soaking the scene in the top of the ninth as Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw kept the Cubs' bats quiet. It cleared up long enough for Chapman to set down the top of the Indians' order in the bottom of the ninth, then came roaring back, and the umpires halted the action.

The game's two longest droughts prolonged by… rain? At this point, why not?

This is where the story that will long live in Cubs and baseball lore arises. The Cubs retreated to the weight room just a short walk from the vistors' dugout. They collected there at the urging of Jason Heyward, the .230-hitting, $184 million man who urgently reminded this 103-game-winning group that it was the best in baseball and that they would show it in extras. And the Cubs club that walked into that small gathering space was a different one with a different look in its collective eye coming out.

Video: Maddon discusses Heywards' team meeting in Game 7

"We don't know what's going to happen," Heyward would say, "but I knew we were ready to do what we did."

Said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer: "That rain delay was kind of divine intervention."

Or maybe the Cubs were just a very, very good team that had the heart of the order coming to the plate.

In any event, they came out swinging.

When the 17-minute respite receded, the Cubs came to bat against Shaw and were instantly roused by a leadoff single from Kyle Schwarber, the slugger whose astounding return from major knee surgery was a major Series subplot. Albert Almora Jr. replaced him as a pinch-runner and moved to second on a Bryant flyout, and an intentional walk to Rizzo set the stage for Ben Zobrist's run-scoring double on a ground ball to left and, after another intentional walk to Addison Russell, an RBI single from Miguel Montero, the Cubs' third-string catcher in this game.

Boom, 8-6 Cubbies.

Video: WS2016 Gm7: Zobrist gives Cubs lead on double in 10th

Ballgame, right?

Oh, come on. It couldn't end that easily.

In the bottom of the 10th, the Indians made two quick outs against Carl Edwards Jr., but the Guyer-Davis combo would come through yet again, this time with Guyer's walk and Davis' line-drive RBI single to shallow center. The Indians had exhausted the patience of the Cubs faithful and exhausted their bench, with Francona's concoction of pinch-hitters, pinch-runners and defensive replacements over the course of the evening leaving little, 34-year-old reserve Michael Martinez -- he of the .197 career average in 578 Major League plate appearances -- with a bat in his hand. Meanwhile, Maddon turned to Mike Montgomery for the biggest save in franchise history.

For the first time all night, predictability prevailed.

Martinez sent a weak grounder toward third that NL MVP Bryant scooped up and tossed to Rizzo for the out 108 years in the making. The Cubs mobbed each other. Ross was held aloft by his mates. Blue-clad fans -- thousands of them, holding "W" flags and singing "Go Cubs Go" -- flooded the first few rows behind the Cubs' dugout and cheered and clapped themselves senseless. Murray and Vedder put the "celeb" in celebration, with Murray honking the horn of Series MVP Zobrist's new Chevrolet and Vedder rolling around in the dirt at home plate.

Video: Cubs celebrate first World Series title in 108 years

Soon, the heavens opened again, and a torrential downpour washed the scene clean, but by then the Cubs' party had shifted to the crowded clubhouse.

It was not until around 3:30 a.m., nearly a full eight-hour shift from first pitch, that the Cubs, now freshly showered and back in street clothes, piled into the buses -- chartered, no kidding, by a company named Champion -- that would take them to the airport and toward the prodigious parade being planned back home.

Said Fowler: "I feel like we played a whole season in one game."

Their legacy was now secure, but so was that of this ballgame. Fowler was right. Like the season itself, Game 7 was long, it was complicated, it was emotionally exhausting. Two ballclubs with a collective championship drought totaling 176 years played a fever dream of a ballgame that won't soon be forgotten.

This one, it turned out, was indeed worth the wait.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians