CHICAGO -- We knew going into the World Series that one of the combatants was going to make history. Let's face it, outside of Northeast Ohio, most of the baseball world thought that team would be the Chicago Cubs. With the Cleveland Indians one game away from winning it all, it looks as if most of the baseball world was wrong.
Only five of 44 teams to fall behind 3-1 in the World Series have come back to win. And with Chicago being limited to two runs or fewer in three of the four games, it's going to take a sudden turnaround against the Indians' red-hot pitching staff to do it. What can they do?
1. Get lights-out starting pitching
There is no bright spot in being down 3-1, but at least the Cubs have their top three starters lined up. Jon Lester wasn't at his best in Game 1, but he has a long history of postseason mastery. Jake Arrieta is the reigning Cy Young and looked sharp in Game 2, the Cubs' lone win in the series. And Kyle Hendricks has also been sharp this postseason; even though he was pulled in the fifth of Game 3, he did exit with a goose egg on the scoreboard.
"Jon is going to give us a good game," Kris Bryant said. "He's our ace for a reason."
That needs to be the case in Game 5.
2. Improve at-bats early in games
We've harped time and again about the importance of getting to Cleveland's starters because of the Indians' airtight bullpen. With Trevor Bauer facing Lester in Game 5, followed by Josh Tomlin against Arrieta in a possible Game 6, that's more important than ever.
"We've just got to grab a lead," manager Joe Maddon said. "We've got to grab a lead [before] the latter part of the game and avoid those [bullpen] guys with either being tied or them having a lead. That's what we have to do."
So far in the series, they have three runs, four walks and a .292 on-base percentage through the first four innings. Anything beyond the fourth cracks the window open for Francona's bullpen. The Cubs must make hay earlier in the game because they've been even worse from the fifth inning on with a .259 on-base percentage.
3. Lay off the breaking pitch
Maddon calls it a league-wide malady, but the Cubs' struggles against the curveball have been worse than most and has become a glaring weakness in the World Series. The Cubs had a .577 OPS against curves during the season, ranking 20th in baseball. During the postseason, they're at .555. During the World Series, it's .299, with a .121 batting average.
The Indians have thrown curves 18.9 percent of the time, more than any Cubs opponent this season except San Diego. Cleveland's staff threw curves 12.9 percent of the time during the season, but that was up to 23.1 percent during the American League playoffs. So they're actually using it a little less against the Cubs, but it has been deadly.
"You can't worry about what they do," Anthony Rizzo said. "We do such a good job of dictating the game and doing what we do. We just focus on one pitch at a time. That's really it."
The big problem here has been Bryant, who actually led the Cubs with a .984 OPS against curves during the season. During the Series, he has seen 24 curves with an OPS of zero. Zippo. That has to change against Bauer, Cleveland's Game 5 starter, who throws the hook on one in five pitches.
"I don't know if they're pitching me differently," Bryant said. "I think any time you see an American League team, it's going to take awhile to adjust, to establish that history. But they have some really good pitchers over there."
More than anything, the Cubs have to bring the Indians' staff back into the zone. Only 41 percent of Cleveland's curveball offerings have been in the strike zone. Of the other 59 percent, the Cubs have chased nearly half of them. That's not the approach that got the Cubs to the World Series.
4. Find a spot to use Kyle Schwarber in Game 5, then let him roll in Games 6 and 7
The Indians broke open Game 4 before Maddon could deploy Schwarber and an early game, high-leverage spot never really arose. It almost did -- down 3-1 in the fourth, Jason Heyward reached on a two-out single. That brought up No. 8 hitter Javier Baez. If Baez had reached, the leverage index on the play would have been 2.1 which, without going into the full explanation, would have made that the ideal spot to use Schwarber because John Lackey was on deck.
Maddon pinch hit for Lackey leading off the next inning but didn't use Schwarber then, either. It makes sense -- Schwarber would not have represented even the tying run, but there still needs to be an urgency to get him out there. Maddon says he's willing to be creative.
"Leading off the inning, yeah. I didn't want to waste that right there," Maddon said. "You don't know. The score at that time was still like 4-1, correct? 3-1. So there's no reason to burn him leading off right there. Because if they're going to go to Miller -- if the game's close, you would have seen Allen or Shaw there in the latter part of the game. And I was willing to use him in a lot of different spots, not just for the pitcher."
When that sweet spot comes up in Game 5, Maddon must pounce. Don't wait to see if a better spot comes in later in the game. Don't worry about Lester's low-pitch count if that's the case, though in this scenario the Cubs would be behind a couple of runs. Play the Schwarber card. Then if the series gets back to Cleveland, the drama is over: Schwarber DHs the rest of the way.
If the Cubs are still going to seize that anticipated page in the history books, they'll have to pull off a comeback for the ages. The odds are long, as Chicago faces its most adverse circumstance to date. But you know what? If the Cubs are finally going to kill those old narratives about droughts and curses, wouldn't this be the way to do it?