During their 5-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs did something no team has consistently been able to do this postseason: get ahead of the Indians and stay there.
Cleveland was 8-1 in the postseason heading into Wednesday’s game, so you wouldn’t expect them to have spent much time trailing. But they were notable front-runners even by the standards of a team with such a great record. Before Game 2 of the World Series, the Indians and their opponents had completed 81 innings during this postseason. Of those 81, Cleveland led through 57 of them — 70 percent — and was either leading or tied through 73, a staggering 90 percent rate of success (or at least, nonfailure) in the scoreboard battle. In games they won, they trailed in just one inning.1
Going back to the advent of the wild card in 1995, both of those figures were the highest any team had ever carried through Game 1 of the World Series, and it wasn’t especially close. Even the 1998 Yankees — who won 114 regular-season games and then turned the playoffs into their own personal victory lap — only led or were tied through 85 percent of their innings through Game 1 of the World Series. And the oft-forgotten 2005 White Sox, who basically perfected this formula, checked in at 83 percent. These Indians have been the most front-running team in modern postseason history.
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The key to front-running is a versatile, opportunistic offense (check), good starting pitching (check) and — most importantly — a lights-out bullpen (um, check). Cleveland is custom-built for winning that way, and they’ve shown just how effective it can be in the small-sample gantlet of the playoffs. You can bet other teams will think about how to copy that style going into next season and beyond.
But on Wednesday night, the Cubs beat the Indians at their own game. It was Chicago who struck first, claiming a 1-0 lead within the game’s first 15 pitches; it was Chicago who nickeled and dimed an extra run in the third and tacked on insurance in the fifth; and it was Chicago who kept their lead secure with dominant pitching, including six strikeouts from Mike Montgomery and Aroldis Chapman in three and one-third relief innings. Against the Cubs in Game 2, the Indians trailed in more innings (nine) than they had in the entire playoffs combined heading into the game. It was a win right out of Cleveland’s playbook.
As the series shifts to Chicago on Friday, it should be interesting to see how Cleveland responds. Aside from overcoming a brief 1-0 deficit in the first inning of Game 1 of the ALDS, we haven’t really seen the Indians mount any comebacks this postseason. Of course, the Cubs hadn’t been an especially strong front-running club themselves before Game 2 — until Wednesday, they’d led through less than half of their postseason innings — instead showcasing a variety of other ways to win. But given Chicago’s great starting rotation and the apparently rust-proof hitting of Kyle Schwarber, Cleveland might need to prove they can win from behind, too.