Key World Series Questions Still Needing Answers Before Champion Is Crowned
The Chicago Cubs are still alive.
Down to their last life, the National League champions preserved their title aspirations by defeating the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night. The long-suffering franchise needs two more victories to win its first championship since 1908.
If the Cubs pull off the improbable comeback, they can silence Cleveland fans who won't stop talking about how the Golden State Warriors fell flat in the same scenario.
The series will return to Ohio on Tuesday, and the Indians will have another chance to shut the door. If the Cubs survive once again, Progressive Field will also host Game 7 Wednesday night.
As both sides prepare for Game 6, let's take a look at the biggest questions lingering over the World Series.
Why Can't Anyone Hit Josh Tomlin?
Josh Tomlin is a 32-year-old pitcher with a 4.58 career ERA and .469 opposing slugging percentage. Only James Shields and Jered Weaver relinquished more home runs than his 36 this season.
Without Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar in the rotation, the strike-tossing veteran has flourished this postseason as Cleveland's indispensable No. 2 starter. Through three outings—all against teams who finished 2016 in the top 10 of runs scored—he has yielded nine hits and three runs over 15.1 innings.
Although the offense only generated seven combined runs in those turns, the Indians won all three games, including Game 3's 1-0 triumph over Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs.
With the series returning to Cleveland, Tomlin will need to keep rolling for one more night. And as if the pressure to win the World Series at home weren't enough of an obstacle, he will also start on short rest for the second time in his career.
Tomlin's incredible hot streak appears to amount to more than a short-sample anomaly, too. His success spans back to September, when he posted a 1.40 ERA and didn't allow any homers. A heavier reliance on his curveball has helped him keep the ball in the park.
Having only thrown 58 pitches on Friday, he should be fresh enough to give manager Terry Francona another four or five innings.
To get the best of Tomlin, the Cubs will need to strike early. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Tomlin dished up eight homers and a .585 slugging percentage during the first frame this season.
Will Jason Heyward Lock Down Right Field?
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has spent the entire postseason searching for production in right field. Jason Heyward, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Chris Coghlan have all made starts there, but none of them have justified extended playing time.
During the playoffs, those four are a combined 7-for-69 with five walks and 21 strikeouts. Heyward—who signed an eight-year, $184 million contract last offseason to become the team's highest-paid player—is hitting 5-for-39 with one walk and a dozen strikeouts.
After not starting the World Series' first three games, the 27-year-old earned a Game 4 nod because of his glove. He responded with two hard-hit singles both belted with an exit velocity over 100 mph, per Baseball Savant's Statcast data.
As a result, Maddon turned to Heyward again Sunday night. While he made a stellar catch in foul territory, he also struck out three times.
Nobody seized the opportunity to supplant him, so he'll likely keep playing with two more righties (Tomlin and Corey Kluber) slated to start for Cleveland. Given the offensive uncertainty, Maddon might as well utilize a Gold Glove defender who often makes hard contact.
Cubs fans want a refund after watching Heyward hit .230/.306/.325 in 2016, but they'll quickly forget his horrific first year if he comes up big in Cleveland.
Will the Cubs' Young Hitters Wake Up?
Heyward isn't the only Cubs batter struggling. After finishing the season third in MLB in runs scored and averaging nearly five runs per game, the Cubs have crossed home plate 10 times in five World Series bouts.
The Los Angeles Dodgers shut the Cubs out in Games 2 and 3 the National League Championship Series but the North Siders appeared to turn a corner, scoring 23 runs in Games 4, 5 and 6 to advance. However, Cleveland's red-hot pitching derailed that progress.
The Cubs are capable of catching fire in a hurry, but their recent performances aren't befitting an offensive juggernaut.
Cleveland pitchers have realized they'd be fools to throw Javier Baez a fastball near the plate. A playoff hero in the opening rounds, he has struck out in nine of his 21 World Series at-bats. This is not a new problem for the free-swinging 23-year-old, who holds a 29.9 career strikeout percentage.
Addison Russell is searching for his first extra-base hit of the World Series. Kris Bryant notched his with a crucial Game 5 home run, making him 2-for-17 with four walks and seven strikeouts against the Indians.
On the bright side, traveling to Cleveland puts Kyle Schwarber back in play as the Cubs' designated hitter. Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist are also taking strong cuts in the heart of Chicago's batting order.
Can Terry Francona Trust Danny Salazar?
Lost behind Schwarber's remarkable return, Danny Salazar emerged from the sidelines to make his first appearance since early September.
Before the series, Francona didn't dismiss the 26-year-old righty possibly starting a game. The manager has instead utilized a three-man rotation. Salazar, meanwhile, has made one appearance, allowing two walks during a scoreless Game 2 inning.
Will he show up before the series concludes? In a perfect world, this thought won't cross Francona's mind as he hands a lead to Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. If that's a stretch, Dan Otero has only coughed up one run in six playoff innings after netting a 1.53 regular-season ERA.
If Sunday night serves as an accurate indicator, Salazar resides at the bottom of Cleveland's bullpen pecking order. Mike Clevinger and Bryan Shaw entered the game before Allen recorded five outs.
While Salazar earned an All-Star nod with a 2.75 ERA and 118 strikeouts before the All-Star Game, the fiery starter closed the season with a 7.44 second-half ERA. Opponents hit .321/.395/.533 against him in the second half, so it's no wonder Cleveland's skipper isn't crazy about throwing his returning star back into the fire.
At this rate, Salazar is unlikely to pitch in an important spot unless Chicago chases Tomlin out of Game 6 early.
Could the Cubs Overcome Corey Kluber in a Possible Game 7?
Say the Cubs snap Tomlin's streak of sterling starts and force a winner-take-all Game 7. To complete the historic comeback, they'd then need to beat Corey Kluber.
The 30-year-old has gone from underrated ace to household superstar by allowing three runs over five masterful postseason starts. He has overseen two of Cleveland's wins over Chicago, collecting 15 strikeouts over 12 frames with 10 baserunners and a one run relinquished.
Per ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, he's the first pitcher to win Games 1 and 4 of the World Series since Jose Rijo in 1990. Even if the Cubs win a second straight game and tie the series, the old cliche of momentum only amounting to the next day's starting pitcher will loom.
Kluber's second World Series appearance came on short rest, which didn't deter him from working an economical six innings in 81 pitches. With Miller and Allen lurking, Francona doesn't need to push his ace much further.
But without any worries of tomorrow, Francona can let his workhorse go deeper if he's dominating. Playing under American League rules ensures a pinch-hitting scenario won't force his hand early.
For the Cubs to break their 108-year drought, they must face an impossible final boss in Kluber. If he leads the Indians to a win in Game 7, Cubs fans will remember him with as much dread as the billy goat.