Terry Francona has Indians on brink of World Series upset

CHICAG0 – Joe Maddon has just a few more hours to decide what to say to the Cubs before their moment of truth in this World Series. He’s going to ask for the extra gear which has so far eluded his hitters and left the National League champs on the verge of elimination. One more chance. One last shot. Shocking? You bet.

The Cubs were outplayed again in Game 4, a 7-2 loss that spoke volumes about how smart the Indians have been and how consistently Terry Francona has outmaneuvered Maddon.

No one who saw the Cubs roll to 103 wins this year could believe they’d end up panicking and being so undisciplined at the plate. But here they are, batting .204 with 39 strikeouts, swinging at everything, mindlessly hacking away as the Tribe moves closer to the greatest October upset in years.

Teams that have been down 3-1 have gone on to lose the last 10 World Series, leaving Maddon to reach for a bridge that’s almost certainly too far. He’s leaning on Jon Lester, his ace, and cryptically says, “if we get through [tonight], based on what they have left pitching-wise [in Games 6 and 7] and what we have, I like our chances.”

Give Maddon credit for staying on message; it’s one of his strengths. But the man is no dummy, either. If the Cubs are unable to break it open early against Trevor Bauer, forget it, they’re cooked. Francona is ready to use Andrew Miller for a third straight game and has a rested Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen waiting.

And if Chicago’s offense doesn’t wake up? They’ll be remembered for coming up small for the second year in a row. Remember, Chicago disappeared against the Mets in a four-game sweep in last October’s NLCS. The narrative was supposed to have changed in 2016, except nothing really has. The Cubs were shut out four times in the past eight games before Saturday, and were no match for Cory Kluber on Saturday even short rest.

Kluber was missing his Game 1 heat, so he combined to throw his curveball and slider 51 times out of the 81 pitches he threw. The right-hander said, “[the Cubs] were a lot more aggressive this time against me, so I made an adjustment.”

He expanded the strike zone, induced Chicago’s free swingers to swing and miss like crazy – 17 times on the night. Clearly the Cubs miss Kyle Schwarber and, in retrospect, the doctor’s diagnosis that his knee was too fragile to play in the field may have doomed them.

But it wasn’t just the mighty, empty hacks that sabotaged the Cubs. It was their unwillingness to play smart baseball: Five times Chicago was unable to move a runner over from second base, including in the first inning, when Kluber was struggling and had allowed the Cubs to take a 1-0 lead.

The Wrigley crowd thought the Cubs had turned the corner, finally jumping out ahead, but the NL champs had blown a chance for a big inning. Instead, their lead disappeared when Carlos Santana led off the second with a long HR to right off John Lackey, followed by another run when Kluber was able to make contact with two out and a runner on third.

That was the omen: Kluber, who has just two hits in his major league career, rolled a swinging bunt up the third base line. Kris Bryant, charging, had no play. He should’ve held the ball, kept Lonnie Chisenhall at third. Instead, Bryant rushed, he panicked and fired wide to first, forcing Anthony Rizzo to leave his feet. Chisenhall scored from third and the Indians never looked back.

Of course, the Tribe won’t dare indulge you in a conversation about finishing off the Cubs. They know Lester is proven postseason asset and Bauer is their weakest link in the rotation. And beating the Cubs at home three times in a row is asking a lot.

But Francona has turned the Indians into a fearless group that outplayed the Red Sox and Blue Jays to get here. They’ve overcome injuries to starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. They use Miller as early as the fifth inning. Their relievers have thrown more innings than their starters.

One more reason to love Francona’s asymmetrical approach: He got Kluber out after six innings. He’s already protecting against a possible Game 7.

“Tito’s done a masterful job,” Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti told MLB Network. “He was always focused on, ‘How do we take what we have and figure out a way to make the team and individual players successful?’ ''

Francona has a chance to be only the fifth manager in major league history to win a World Series with multiple teams, joining Bucky Harris (1924 Senators, 1947 Yankees), Bill McKechnie (1925 Pirates, 1940 Reds), Sparky Anderson (1975-76 Reds, 1984 Tigers), and Tony La Russa (1989 A’s, 2006 and 2011 Cardinals).

And of the 16 managers with at least 50 playoff victories, Francona’s .648 winning percentage is by far the best. And, as Yankees fans painfully remember, he’s the only one to have engineered a comeback from a 3-0 deficit.

Of course, Francona would be the first to say such talk is premature. It’s heresy. The Indians haven’t won anything yet. Maddon might just find the right words to save the Cubs tonight. But the Tribe is close enough to already be regarded as one of the great success stories of our generation. That conversation will start with the manager.

Bob Klapisch writes for The (Bergen) Record, part of the USA TODAY Network

Copyright 2016 USA TODAY Sports


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