CLEVELAND -- The Chicago Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in a mind-blowing, nerve-jangling, heart-stopping mess of a game, a 10-inning acid trip that tested the limits of your sanity, made baseball history and ended 108 years of anxiety.
Every inning of this game pushed the night closer and closer to becoming a Salvador Dali painting brought to life. It was surreal, it was painful, it was delirious. It was four hours and 28 minutes of madness, culminating in an ending that still doesn't seem real.
When Dexter Fowler led off the game by smashing a Corey Kluber two-seamer over the wall in dead center, the long, strange trip began. Kluber fired six masterful shutout innings in Game 1 of the World Series, making that two-seamer dance like he was Greg Maddux in his prime, but with five extra miles of velocity. On this night, he offered no such wizardry, with Fowler's blow the first of several against the Indians ace.
In the fourth, the Cubs struck again, parlaying a Kris Bryant single, an errant fastball that struck Anthony Rizzo in the back, an Addison Russell sacrifice fly and a ringing double to the wall in center by Willson Contreras into two more runs. When Javier Baez blasted a 408-foot shot over the wall in right-center to lead off the fifth, that was it for Kluber. His wildly atypical line for the night: four innings pitched, four runs, six hits, two home runs, zero strikeouts and 10 fly-ball outs, compared to only one on the ground.
This, along with their nine-run outburst in Game 6, is what we had been expecting the Cubs offense to do. The National League's top offense during the regular season had struggled badly early in the series, with free swingers like Baez helicoptering themselves into the turf and even elite sluggers like Kris Bryant flailing. The Cubs set a new postseason record by starting six players age 24 or younger in Game 2, and you wondered if that inexperience might trump the team's copious talent. Instead, that collection of kids, bolstered by a couple of big blows by some unlikely veteran heroes, knocked around one of the American League's Cy Young front-runners, then kept mashing when Cleveland's vaunted bullpen took over.
If a one-run nail-biter to end a seven-game series could ever do this, this one offered a stark reminder that attrition can be a killer. Losing Carlos Carrasco until next spring with a hand injury, and Danny Salazar for seven weeks with a forearm injury, forced the Indians' rotation into survival mode. Trying to win a series with Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin starting a combined four times against a loaded offense was asking a lot. Trying to coax three dominant starts out of Kluber, who would have to battle fatigue and the threat of the Cubs finally mastering him on their third try, was asking a lot.
Going up against a team with dangerous threats from one almost all the way down to 25, when you're missing All-Star Michael Brantley and the beguiling right-hander Carrasco, while having Salazar and catcher Yan Gomes at far less than 100 percent, was simply asking too much. If anything, the Indians coming this close to winning it all while operating at so far below full strength was an enormous feat, a tribute to the skill and perseverance of those able-bodied enough to play, and to manager Terry Francona for coaxing everything he could out of that depleted roster.
They came close, too. Oh so agonizingly close.
When Fowler homered, Carlos Santana came right back with a run-scoring single in the third to tie it. When Andrew Miller finally showed he was mortal by ceding a run on two hits and a walk in the top of the fifth, the Indians came storming back with two in the bottom of the fifth, both runs scoring on a wild pitch. Watching Jason Kipnis scamper all the way around from second as the ball scooted away from David Ross, you sensed that the Indians weren't going to go down without a fight.
Multiple Cubs heroes chipped in as the game wore on. Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks struggled at times with command, and got bailed out by weak swings on numerous hittable pitches. But he also dealt a nasty changeup when he had to, including this first-inning whiff of Kipnis. Fowler and Kyle Schwarber combined for six hits. Jon Lester navigated some tough innings in relief, making Indians hitters suffer the wrath of his cutter and curveball. The ageless Ross hammered a 406-foot blast to dead center in the sixth, stretching Chicago's lead to 6-3, and making what might have been 20,000 Cubs fans in the stands lose their damn minds.
In the meantime, the Indians kept piling up mistakes. Cleveland pitchers' continued indifference at holding runners on led to the gruesome sight of Schwarber -- reconstructed ACL, Matt Stairs body and all -- stealing second off Kluber in the second inning ... without a throw. Jose Ramirez led off the second with an infield single ... then Hendricks promptly picked him off. The Cubs' two-run fourth was an avalanche of bad defense: A bad throw by Mike Napoli erased any possibility of a would-be huge double play, a high Rajai Davis throw allowed Bryant to slide in with the go-ahead run and a late break and bad route by Davis helped make Contreras' run-scoring double possible. That inning was one of many times this season that Cleveland's outfield wore the goat horns, both offensively and defensively.
Still, the Indians kept coming. And the game got weirder and weirder, to the point of absurdity.
After retiring the first two hitters in the bottom of the eighth, Lester and the Cubs owned a three-run lead and stood just four outs away from erasing the year 1908 from the conversation. Then Ramirez tapped another infield single. Then Maddon summoned Aroldis Chapman to close things out. Then Brandon Guyer greeted Chapman with a line-drive double to right-center, one of several pitches Chapman threw that came in a few ticks slower than normal, and in terrible locations.
That brought Davis to the plate. The veteran outfielder led the AL with 43 steals this year, a remarkable accomplishment for a player who turned 36 in October, though still befitting his track record as one of the league's master thieves. He also cracked a career-high 12 home runs in the regular season, though he remained a hitter more committed to slapping balls in play and getting on base. And yet, few could have predicted what came next.
Davis battled Chapman for six pitches, fouling off four fastballs that ranged from 97 to 99 mph. Choked way up on the bat with two strikes and seemingly just looking to put the ball in play, he tracked one last heater, this one a four-seamer at the knees. Somehow, someway, he connected. The ball shot off Davis' bat, a frozen rope headed for the left-field corner that kept carrying ... and carrying ... and carrying ... until it disappeared over the wall.
Bedlam. A light-hitting player nearing the end of his career had bested the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball history. The team with the longest drought in American professional sports by nearly 40 years had given away a three-run lead with four outs to go in Game 7 of the World Series. By one analytical measure, it was the third-biggest hit in baseball history.
Dayenu is a 1,000-year-old song sung on Passover, one used to commemorate 15 gifts bestowed by God. The song builds and builds, calling out miracles, then punctuating each one with Dayenu, Hebrew for "that would have been enough."
The Cubs beating up on a previously unhittable pitcher with the fate of the baseball world riding on the outcome? That would have been enough. Kyle Freaking Schwarber stealing a base standing up. Bryant putting on another clinic on the basepaths by scoring on a hit-and-run single. Kipnis doing him one better by dashing home from second on a wild pitch. Lester coming out of the pen to pull a Madison Bumgarner. Miller going 30 appearances with only one home run allowed, then serving up dingers to Cubs hitters in back-to-back games, the latter by Ross in his final major-league game. The most terrifying pitcher in the league getting lit up by a slap-hitting outfielder who was on the field only because the rookie he was replacing was so out of sorts he had let a pop fly drop in for a two-run double a night earlier. Any of one those outcomes would have been enough.
Oh, but there was more. Much more.
The top of the ninth felt like 10,000 root canals if you were a Cubs fan. Right after Chapman coughed up the lead, Chicago looked primed to regain the edge and win the game. Ross led off with a walk. Jason Heyward worked a terrific at-bat, only to show once again that his bat has deserted him, rapping a grounder to second that nearly ended in a double play. Bryan Shaw replaced Cody Allen, only to fall behind Baez 3-1. When Heyward stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error, all that remained was any half-decent ball in play to regain the lead. But with the count 3-2, reality again turned into a Dali dreamscape.
Incredibly, impossibly, Maddon ordered Baez to bunt with two strikes, hoping to catch the Indians' infielders napping and pushing across the go-ahead run with a squeeze. Instead, Baez fouled the pitch off weakly, striking out on a bunt when a tapper or even modestly deep fly ball would've scored the run. When wunderkind Francisco Lindor shut down the Cubs' rally with a dazzling run-and-throw to end the inning, it seemed like the Indians might pull this off.
In another puzzling move, Maddon stuck with Chapman. Someday we might find out that Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop stole a cherry danish from the Cubs manager, incurring a never-ending wrath. Otherwise, it's hard to fathom how Maddon used his bullpen in Game 7, running his closer back out for the ninth after getting strafed in the eighth, even briefly warming up Game 6 starter Jake Arrieta rather than going to the two right-handers who held down key setup roles for much of the season. Had the Cubs lost this game, Maddon and his puzzling moves might've ended up supplanting Steve Bartman as the latest incarnation of The Curse. Instead, Chapman produced a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth.
Then the skies opened up. Four hours of fever-dream baseball, extra innings and then the heavens intervening. After the game, the eventual World Series MVP and Maddon would both credit Heyward for delivering an inspiring speech during the rain delay that had the entire nation concocting fake doctors' notes for Thursday, and supposedly got the Cubs fired up for the 10th. In reality, it was the Cubs' ample talent that got it done.
Schwarber led off the inning with a sharp single to right. Bryant then nearly whacked a home run in his third consecutive World Series game. Instead, he settled for a flyout at the wall in center that advanced pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. to second, yet another case of the Cubs flexing their baserunning muscle, an underrated key to the team's success all year long.
The Indians huddled at the mound, then Francona ordered Shaw to intentionally walk Rizzo, bringing Ben Zobrist to the plate.
It's hard to imagine Maddon trusting anyone on the roster more than he does Zobrist. It was under Maddon that Zobrist went from utility infielder to one of the game's best all-around players, a multi-position defensive machine who grinded out at-bats better than almost anyone in the game. When commentators use the term "professional hitter," you could just flash a photo of Zobrist to show who they mean.
With Shaw ahead 1-2 and starting to look like he might yet escape the jam, Zobrist delivered. The hit: an opposite-field smash down the left-field line. The damage: a run scoring, and runners advancing to second and third. The result? A 7-6 lead, and later in the evening, Zobrist hoisting the World Series MVP trophy, a well-earned honor to cap a series in which he batted a cool .357/.419/.500. When the Cubs' third catcher of the night, Miguel Montero, followed with another run-scoring single, it seemed we could finally say Dayenu for real.
Except it was never going to be that easy. After Napoli capped a horrific 0-for-5 night with his third strikeout and Ramirez bounced out to short, Guyer came through with a walk to keep hope alive. When Guyer scooted to second on catcher's indifference and scored on a Davis single, the pit in Cubs fans' stomachs returned. But in one last display of the team's talent and depth, midseason pickup Mike Montgomery coaxed a groundout from Indians outfielder Michael Martinez.
The Cubs mobbed each other in the middle of the field, and history was made.
Everything after that was a blur. Moments. Tiny snapshots in time. Rizzo squeezing the final-out ball in his hand like it was the Holy Grail. The Cubs hoisting Grampa Rossy on their shoulders and carrying him around the field, saluting the team's inspirational leader one last time. And the fans. Thousands and thousands and thousands of Cubs fans, running down to the Cubs dugout, belting out "Hey Chicago, what do you say; The Cubs are going to win today" until they were hoarse and numb, reduced to a puddle of tears and snot and joy that will linger for a long time.
This is why we watch. This is why we quote Rogers Hornsby all winter, beeline for Florida and Arizona in the spring, and go nuts for Opening Day. It's why we suffer through losing streaks and ugly errors and months of frustration. It's why we accept all the heartache that baseball can deliver, in a game, a month, a season, a lifetime. It's for scenes like the one at Progressive Field in the wee hours of the night, with rain-soaked fans singing their hearts out, and tens of millions of fans around the country shaking their heads at a game that needed to be seen to be believed.
Baseball gave all of us a night of perfection. I can't wait till next year.
Nick Pollack of PitcherList.com contributed research help for this article.