CHICAGO -- The 2016 season is now reducible to one or two final games. By fending off the Indians in Game 5 of the World Series, the Cubs ensured that we'll have a Game 6 back in Cleveland on Tuesday.
If the Cubs have their way, there will also be a Game 7 on Wednesday. The Indians, meantime, are hoping this long, tortuous seven-month crucible of attrition goes no further than Game 6.
The tasks, then, are simple: The Cubs must win two more games; the Indians one.
As for history, it tells us that teams down 3-2 and playing the final two games of the series on the road have won said series just 21.3 percent of the time. Stated another way, the historical outcomes of best-of-seven postseason series suggest that the Indians still have a healthy 78.7 percent chance of winning the 2016 World Series. As well, the team up 3-2 and heading back home for Game 6 wins Game 6 55.3 percent of the time. As you would expect, the numbers are working in Cleveland's favor.
As for the particulars, here's what you're likely looking at ...
Game 6: Jake Arrieta vs. Josh Tomlin
Game 7 (if necessary): Kyle Hendricks vs. Corey Kluber
The first thing to note is that, barring unexpected changes, each Cleveland starter will be going on short rest.
For Tomlin, this will be just the second time he has pitched on short rest. The first was in July 2010, and he fared well, albeit across just 5 1/3 innings. As for Tomlin in general, there's a tendency to think he has been pitching over his head lately, but given his increased reliance on (and confidence in) the curveball perhaps his recent numbers are closer to sustainable than you might think.
With the travel day, the Indians' bullpen will be rested, and bear in mind that Andrew Miller didn't pitch in Game 5, so that's two days off for the Cleveland relief ace. Don't be surprised if manager Terry Francona leans heavily on his bullpen in Game 6. As is usually the case with Francona in the playoffs, he'll lean on this in a preemptive rather than reactive fashion. That's part of what makes him one of the best managers in the business.
A potential X-factor is Danny Salazar. Salazar has gotten past the arm problems that limited him in the second half and drained his overall numbers in 2016. He worked an inning (19 pitches) in Game 2, so perhaps a more high-leverage bit of work is in his near future.
Tomlin's counterpart, Arrieta, didn't allow a hit until well into his Game 2 start in Cleveland. However, his command was lacking for much of that start. At times he missed the target badly and didn't appear to know where his sinker was going. On Sunday before Game 5, Arrieta talked about the need to "execute with quality in and out of the strike zone, and try to get ahead in the count as early and as often as I can to open up some more options for myself."
Arrieta's stuff is nasty and active, so he likes to get batters to chase pitches out of the zone. In Game 2, he got chases on his sinker, but the Indians did a solid job of laying off his slider. If they're able to resist both out-of-zone offerings in Game 6, they'll get to Arrieta, given his struggles with command. An early tell might be if the Indians' hitters are laying off his sinker.
For Game 7 -- again, if necessary -- the story is more straightforward. Can Kluber, despite pitching on short rest for the second time in a row and for the third time this postseason, keep runs off the board? Another factor will be whether the Cubs' lineup is better at adjusting to Kluber's nasty stuff and deep repertoire after seeing him for the third time in nine days. We know that increasing familiarity can yield a benefit for hitters during an individual game, but what about across a series? It seems plausible.
On the other side, Hendricks, who thrives by limiting hard contact and letting the Cubs' standout defense do its thing, will need to continue avoiding the barrel. In Game 3, the Indians reached him for six hits in 4 1/3 innings, but they weren't able to cluster those hits. Finding holes in the Cubs' defense will determine whether the Indians hang runs on Hendricks in the deciding game.
Finally, it's worth remembering that Kyle Schwarber will return to the Chicago lineup as DH for this final game or these final games. Needless to say, that's a boon to a Chicago lineup that has struggled to hit for power in this series.
It's going to be cold, it's going to be loud, it's going to be high-stakes, and it's going to be fun.