CHICAGO — The Cleveland Indians won a 1-0 nail-biter on Friday night in Game 3 of the World Series. Two number-three starters succeeded in shutting down two strong offenses, allowing the game to come down to the final at-bat. But while the relievers were overpowering as usual, the most significant influence on this game wasn’t the wind, a single Indians hitter or managerial cleverness, but a seemingly inconsistent strike zone.
Home plate umpire John Hirschbeck has a reputation for calling balls and strikes erratically, and that was on full display last night, creating shifting strike-zone boundaries that bedeviled both offenses.1 For the Indians, Josh Tomlin turned in an unexpectedly solid line, allowing only two hits. At times, Tomlin was burned by bad calls, leading, for example, to a fourth-inning walk by Kris Bryant. But when the strike zone is called inconsistently, hitters tend to strike out more often and make weaker contact. That’s because pitchers can choose to target inconsistently called areas of the zone when it benefits them, while hitters can only decide whether to swing or not at what’s offered. When they’re uncertain, batters often opt to swing at pitches outside the zone, resulting in glancing contact and easy outs.
Chicago Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who usually gets favorable strike calls due to his impeccable command, struggled mightily in allowing six hits and two walks in only 4.2 innings. The shifting zone did aid him in racking up six strikeouts, above what you’d expect based on his regular-season stats.
Even as the inconsistent strike zone helped the pitchers, neither was overpowering. And with bullpens fresh after the day off, both starters were pulled before the 6th inning with the score 0-0, an event that has never happened before in MLB postseason history. That handed the game to the relievers, including an early appearance from Andrew Miller. They were as commanding as expected, except for one lapse by the Cubs’ Carl Edwards Jr., who allowed Coco Crisp to single in the lone run of the night.
The Cubs came close to evening the score in the bottom of the ninth. With two runners in scoring position and two outs, Chicago dynamo Javy Báez was up to bat against Cleveland closer Cody Allen. He struck out whiffing to end the threat, leaving the Indians up 2-1 in the Series.
The outlook for the Cubs is worrisome going forward: Their series win probability by Elo is down to only 37 percent.2 In his last start, Corey Kluber looked invincible, and the Cubs will have to face him in Games 4 and 7 of this Series (if it goes that far). That means they will need to pull off at least one upset against the 2014 AL Cy Young winner to clinch the series. While such a feat appears difficult, the Cubs managed an even more surprising performance against Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS, so it’s certainly possible. Nobody said ending a 108-year title drought would be easy.
CORRECTION (Oct. 29, 12:05 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Corey Kluber. He was the 2014 AL Cy Young winner; he is not the reigning winner.