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Indians, Cubs and what might have been

MLB.com @castrovince

They met, by chance, on Michigan Avenue, the would-be World Series hero and the general manager of a title team 108 years in the making.

Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis spends his offseasons in his native Chicago, where Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs were the toast of the town in that winter following the 2016 season. The two crossed paths there among the upscale shops that line the Magnificent Mile, and what might have otherwise been a quick nod of recognition, instead became an opportunity to connect and dissect a World Series for the ages, mere weeks after it wrapped.

They met, by chance, on Michigan Avenue, the would-be World Series hero and the general manager of a title team 108 years in the making.

Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis spends his offseasons in his native Chicago, where Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs were the toast of the town in that winter following the 2016 season. The two crossed paths there among the upscale shops that line the Magnificent Mile, and what might have otherwise been a quick nod of recognition, instead became an opportunity to connect and dissect a World Series for the ages, mere weeks after it wrapped.

"We ended up standing there talking for a while," Hoyer says.

Video: WS2016 Gm7: Cubs win World Series with Game 7 win

Shared respect emanates from being on separate sides of an enrapturing experience like 2016's four-hour, 28-minute Game 7. So it was in that Streeterville scene in which a ring-bearer and a runner-up could converse cordially, and so it will be on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Cleveland's Progressive Field, where the Indians and Cubs will have their first formal meeting since one of the greatest games any of us has ever seen.

"At the core of it," says Kipnis, "we're still baseball kids who know how great that Series was."

The unspoken but understood undertone of the Kipnis-Hoyer conversation and this Cubs-Indians reunion is how thin the line separating these squads really was.

In another world, with another swing on a hanging slider, Kipnis would have represented -- to Hoyer and to all the other Cubs fans walking Michigan Avenue that day -- not just an October opponent but the embodiment of an unkillable curse, the Chicago kid who lived on the same street as Steve Bartman and grew up to keep the billy goat breathing.

Had that happened, the sense of urgency currently surrounding a small-market Cleveland club with the longest active championship drought in the game would instead apply to a Cubs team perhaps still trying to shake the curse conversation.

"I think we're all kidding ourselves if we think the difference between the winning and the losing is big," Hoyer says. "It's not as big as it might seem."

To many, that difference emanated from a 17-minute rain delay that's been romanticized in Cubs lore as the long-suffering franchise's moment of spiritual awakening and literal cleansing, en route to the 8-7 triumph in the 10th.

It's a pretty good story.

This is not that story. This is the story of what happened just before the rain put a pause in the proceedings. The inning in-between Rajai Davis' moment of game-tying glory and Jason Heyward's Knute Rockne-like role in the visiting weight room gets lost in the shuffle of the Game 7 narrative. But in pure baseball terms, it's an inning that allowed the Cubs to steal the Tribe's thunder and seal the way we think about 2016.

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

This is the story of the ninth inning and the three small moments that, if altered ever so slightly, would have created an entirely different conversation on Michigan Avenue that winter day and at Progressive Field this week.

The Leadoff Walk
In the broadcast feed from the start of the ninth, interspersed with the images of Indians fans excitedly stirring in the stands, there is a shot of a sweating, stunned Aroldis Chapman sitting in the Cubs dugout and a quick cut to Davis, whose heroic homer had tied the tilt at 6 mere minutes earlier. Davis is shown glancing into the heavens with the dazed expression of a man who can't believe what he just did.

"Everybody on our side," Davis says now, "felt everything shift in our direction."

Then, Cody Allen throws the first pitch of the ninth to David Ross.

And it's a ball.

"I literally wasn't able to feel my legs," says Allen, who at that point had recorded the last four outs for the Indians. "I went out there and freaking walked the leadoff guy."

On the surface, it might seem that walk had no bearing on the ballgame, for here's how the rest of the half-inning played out:

• Ross was replaced by pinch-runner Chris Coghlan, who was forced out at second on Heyward's ground ball to Kipnis.

• Terry Francona summoned reliever Bryan Shaw. Heyward stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by catcher Yan Gomes, but the Indians caught a break when Joe Maddon had Javier Baez bunt with two strikes, resulting in a foul ball for strike three.

Video: WS2017 Gm7: Shaw strikes out Baez on foul bunt

• With two out, Dexter Fowler sent a one-hopper up the middle that drifted right of the second-base bag. Shortstop Francisco Lindor ranged hard to his left to make the stop and the perfect strike to first for the third out, leaping and raising his arms as the crowd went wild.

"When Dexter hit that ball, my wife hugged me," Hoyer says. "But Lindor made an amazing play. It's like, 'You were just hugging me a second ago...'"

Video: Must C Clips: Lindor keeps game tied in the 9th

The Indians had done their job to maintain the momentum from the Davis homer.

Yet the leadoff walk still haunts Allen.

"If I would have gotten Ross out, I could have finished the inning," Allen says. "Then the rain delay wouldn't have affected Shaw."

Because of the delay, Shaw, who by that point was into his 77th inning of work of the season, had roughly a 30-minute break between pitches. Maybe it was Heyward's speech that properly pumped up the Cubs in advance of their extra-inning awakening at the plate, or maybe Allen's hypothesis has merit.

Whatever the case there, it's clear the freebie baserunner -- parlayed with Gomes' error at second -- did have consequence in another way. Because when the Cubs got their runner to third that inning, Francona replaced Coco Crisp in right field with Michael Martinez, who had the stronger throwing arm. This would come back to bite the Tribe when Martinez, owner of a .197 career average and .507 OPS, was due to hit with two out, the tying run at first and no bats left on the bench in the 10th. (Martinez's game-ending groundout might have been the only predictable outcome in an otherwise surreal Game 7.)

So the leadoff walk meant nothing, and it meant everything.

"I've thought about that walk a lot," Allen says. "A lot."

Video: WS2016 Gm7: Allen doesn't allow hit over two frames

The Hanging Slider
Carlos Santana still thinks about what happened next.

The Indians had the top-third of their order due up in the bottom of the ninth against a gassed Chapman, who had just surrendered his first homer since June 18 and thrown 87 pitches in three games over four days. The conditions were aligned in favor of the Indians getting the winning run across and ending a 68-year title drought of their own.

"It's like two years ago," Santana says, "but I can still see myself there."

He was there leading off the inning and putting up the kind of disciplined at-bat that would eventually earn him a lucrative contract with the Phillies. Santana went to the plate hunting a fastball, but Chapman went slider-heavy and fell behind, 3-1, looking more vulnerable than ever.

"A situation like that," Chapman says through an interpreter, "we have to be mentally tough, because it's the end of it all, it's the end of the whole season."

If Chapman walks Santana in that spot, he's in the same jam Allen had been earlier in the inning. He had to challenge the hitter, and he had to do it with diminished stuff. Chapman's next pitch was a fastball that came in not at his typical 101 mph, but rather 96.5 mph and elevated in the zone. The notoriously patient Santana took the pitch for strike two.

"My approach is don't swing at that pitch," Santana says. "I was trying to look middle-in, but it was middle away. I had another opportunity at 3-2. He had more pressure. I remember that he threw a 3-2 slider."

It wasn't just any 3-2 slider. Chapman's sixth pitch to Santana was what can only be described as a meatball, coming in at 84.8 mph and hanging over the heart of the plate despite catcher Miguel Montero's low target.

Santana just misses the mark
Santana swung and connected, but not off the barrel of the bat. What could have been Santana's Mazeroski moment was, instead, a lazy fly to left. Santana's body language -- a frustrated hop out of the batter's box -- said it all. Chapman had given him the kind of pitch that can put a hitter in the history books, and he missed it by a fraction of an inch.

"It happened," Santana says. "The pitch is emotion, the swing is emotion, everything is emotion. It's tough."

The crazy thing isn't that Chapman got away with such a huge mistake in such a huge spot.

It's that he got away with another one against the very next batter.

That was Kipnis, the Chicago kid.

The Hanging Slider, Part II
Kipnis' story had been an easy media magnet. The Northbrook, Ill., native was painted as a one-time bleeder of Cubbie blue now thrust into the awkward position of facing the North Siders on the Series stage.

As is often the case, the truth was more nuanced.

"It's not like I was a season-ticket holder when I was 7 years old," he says with a laugh. "They were blowing it out of proportion. I went to White Sox games, too. I was a baseball fan. If they really wanted to dig deep, they'd find out the Cardinals were probably my favorite team for a few years with Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen."

But Kipnis' Cubs connection was real from the standpoint that his Facebook feed was loaded with Cubs love from old pals, and four of Kipnis' best friends are season-ticket holders at Wrigley.

"It's weird," he says. "You take on this villainous mindset. Your friends, people who have been in your corner for everything, all of a sudden they're all against you. So you kind of buy into it. That urge to be liked, to be friends with people? That just went straight out the window. I wanted nothing more than to piss all of them off and then smile at them."

Had he done just that, Kipnis would be as infamous in Cubs' lore as his old Northbrook neighbor, Bartman, who also went to the same school as Kipnis and his siblings.

Video: Kipnis discusses hard loss for Indians after Game 7

"He was on our bus going to St. Norbert's [School]," Kipnis says. "He was more my sister's age, who's the oldest. I remember there being cop cars outside his house for like a month after what happened [in the 2003 National League Championship Series] just to make sure nobody came to his property."

As in the Santana at-bat, Chapman abandoned his fastball in favor of a not-so-sharp slider. Kipnis took the first one for a borderline strike one. The second one was wide, and Kipnis let it pass for ball one.

The 1-1 pitch is the one that still stings for Kipnis. He didn't assume it would be another slider.

"You're expecting one or two sliders, but never back-to-back-to-back," he says. "You still have to defend against that fastball. People say he threw right over the plate. Well, you try to be on time for both pitches. It's easier said than done."

That's why Kipnis' swing was just the slightest tick ahead of the 83.9-mph slider -- a pitch virtually identical to the one Santana had gotten at 3-2. Kipnis connected. And if you were watching on TV, or in the seating sections directly behind home plate, that connection looked climactic.

"When he swung the bat, my heart just stopped," Hoyer says. "I thought we had just been walked off."

The thought lasted all of a second or two, because the batted ball that could have changed the course of history instead took its own curved course into the seats down the right-field line, well short of the foul pole.

"I was out in front and hooked it just enough," Kipnis says. "It had enough English on it that it was taking a right turn a third of the way down the line."

Video: WS Gm7 CHC@CLE: Kipnis laces one foul in the 9th

Chapman continued to flirt with disaster. He threw Kipnis a total of six sliders in that at-bat, three of them hanging. The last came on a 3-2 pitch that, again, Kipnis just missed, fouling it straight back and angrily spinning out of the box. Chapman somehow finished Kipnis off with a 97.4-mph fastball that badly missed above the strike zone after Montero set his glove low and away. Kipnis swung through it for strike three.

And when Chapman retired Lindor on a first-pitch popout with probably his best pitch of the outing -- a 98-mph fastball on the inside corner -- he had somehow survived an inning that, on stuff alone, he had little business surviving.

Video: WS2016 Gm7: Chapman retires Lindor to end the 9th

"That was a big tone-setter," says Kyle Schwarber, who led off the Cubs' 10th. "For Chapman to do what he did, given the circumstances [the Davis homer] that were still probably on his mind at that time, was impressive."

Kipnis expressed regret about his at-bat against Chapman.

"This guy's tired at 98, 99 mph," he says. "But being tired, he was starting to catch more of the plate. I think it was hard for all of us that inning not to think of trying to end it with just one swing. You want to be a hero. But adding effort to that at-bat versus that kind of velo is not the way to go about it. Staying short and singling him to death would have been a better approach."

The better approach came from the Cubs, against Shaw, in the 10th inning that cemented their legend.

The Reunion
Even in a sport that demands daily prioritizing of the present, Game 7 maintains a real resonance with those who played it.

Outside the Cubs' home clubhouse is the giant replication of the fan chalk art that colored Wrigley's brick walls in the wake of the victory. Inside, on a recent day, a stack of reprints of the Sports Illustrated cover celebrating the triumph sat next to a Sharpie marker, awaiting the signature of cover boy Anthony Rizzo.

Cubs fans might be frustrated by the 2017 NLCS exit and a ho-hum start to the season, but the members of the 2016 club have a permanent place in hearts, minds and Chicagoland card shows.

"Even now," Schwarber says, "even with where we're at in the season, sometimes I still catch myself thinking back on it. It's just a special time."

The opposite is true in Cleveland, where Game 7 is still the source of some sleepless nights.

"I can sit here and tell you that I've turned the page on it, and for the most part I did," Allen says. "But there is a day a month, a few days a year, where I'm just wide awake at night. I don't know if that's the right way to handle it or not, but that's the way I handle it. … I'll just say this: I kept track of the Cubs last year. I knew their record, I knew who they were playing. That's probably not the best way to do it, either, because it's a new year and I probably should have been keeping track of the damn Yankees and not the Cubs. So hopefully we can use all of that as a learning experience."

The experience of having a World Series title within reach is something the Indians and Cubs are both chasing again here in 2018. Kipnis was asked what it would mean to again be in that situation, with a ring on the line and the bat in his hands.

"It means I did something right, it means this team did something right," he says. "That's all any player ever wants is the redemption. To get right back in that situation? Where do I sign? I would love that."

He'll settle, for now, for an opportunity to impact an Interleague series with the Cubs -- a reunion that reminds us how the slightest separation in a single inning can create a lasting legacy. 

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. MLB.com reporters Todd Zolecki and Bryan Hoch contributed to this story.

Cleveland Indians, Jason Kipnis