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The Cubs’ Comeback Only Gets Harder From Here

Facing elimination in Game 5 of the World Series Sunday night, the Chicago Cubs did something that has distinguished this team from previous versions of the franchise: They didn’t fold. Despite trailing early against the notoriously front-running Indians, Chicago clawed its way back from the brink with a three-run flurry in the fourth inning, got a few more steady innings out of starter Jon Lester, and then used their bullpen to hold off Cleveland’s rally, securing a 3-2 victory and guaranteeing that their season would last at least one more game.

In what has become the Postseason Of The Reliever, Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman had his fireman moment on Sunday. After Carl Edwards Jr. gave up a single and induced a flyout in the top of the seventh, Chapman entered the game — and proceeded to dominate the Indians’ lineup for the rest of the night on 42 pitches (which tied for the secondmost he’d ever thrown in an MLB game). Eight of the 10 Cleveland hitters Chapman faced made outs, half of which came on strikes, as the closer gave up just one hit and walked none. Indians reliever Andrew Miller has become known in these playoffs for shutting down opponents over multiple innings, but it was Chapman’s turn in Game 5.

In the history of World Series elimination games, Chapman recorded the sixth save of eight or more outs, placing his Game 5 in a group that also includes Madison Bumgarner’s unbelievable 15-out performance in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. And more importantly for the Cubs, who asked their reliever to start his workday by immediately defusing a high-leverage situation, Chapman added a game-high 41 points of win probability to Chicago’s victory chances, which ranks 10th-most all-time among relief pitchers in a World Series elimination game:

PITCHER TEAM YEAR GAME NO. OUTS RECORDED WPA
1 Dick Donovan CHW 1959 5 5 60.1
2 Madison Bumgarner SF 2014 7 15 60.0
3 Walter Johnson WSH 1924 7 12 58.9
4 Hank Borowy CHC 1945 6 12 54.1
5 Pete Alexander STL 1926 7 7 51.0
6 Hugh McQuillan NYG 1924 7 5 47.5
7 Rollie Fingers OAK 1972 7 6 46.2
8 Bob Kuzava NYY 1952 7 8 43.4
9 Dick Drago BOS 1975 6 9 42.5
10 Aroldis Chapman CHC 2016 5 8 40.9
11 Clay Carroll CIN 1970 4 11 40.5
12 Carl Willis MIN 1991 6 8 33.4
13 Jesse Orosco NYM 1986 7 6 29.5
14 Allie Reynolds NYY 1952 6 4 29.0
15 Rick Aguilera MIN 1991 6 6 28.4
Most valuable relief appearances in a World Series elimination game (according to win probability added)

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Of course, winning Game 5 was always going to be the easiest step of Chicago’s three-part comeback journey. With staff ace Jon Lester1 going up against a struggling Trevor Bauer at Wrigley Field, our Elo prediction model gave the Cubs a 65 percent probability of extending their season Sunday night, which was tied for their fourth-most-likely victory of the entire playoffs. Game 5 was a must-win game for them anyway, but if the Cubs were going to put their best foot forward in any one of the three games they hoped were left in their season, it was always going to be in Sunday’s matchup.

Now the really difficult work begins for the Cubs. For one thing, the series shifts back to Cleveland; moreover, Chicago will have to go through a tougher Indians starter in Josh Tomlin for Game 6 — and then they’ll face ace Corey Kluber, who ranks second-best in all of baseball by our pitcher scores, for a potential Game 7. Elo gives the Cubs a 52 percent chance of forcing a Game 7, but it also says they’d be underdogs in that matchup2 even if they survive Game 6.

Chapman’s performance helped give the Cubs a better chance than the slim probability they had after Saturday’s loss, but Chicago still has a long way to go before it can end its 108-year championship drought.

Footnotes

  1. FiveThirtyEight’s pitcher scores rate Lester higher than any other Cubs starter.

  2. Right now our model only gives them a 45 percent chance of winning, though that could change depending on how much Chicago boosts its Elo in Game 6.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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