Sandy Koufax was the first to do it, as you may well imagine.
On a Wednesday in 1963, in front of 69,000 fans bleeding navy and white pinstripes over the wooden seats of a pre-2009 Yankee Stadium, Koufax struck out 15 Yankees en route to the Dodgers’ first of four straight wins in the World Series.
Bob Gibson was the next to do it, laying down 17 strikeouts in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series; then Nolan Ryan and reliever Charlie Kerfeld with 15 strikeouts in Game 5 of the 1986 NLCS; then a trifecta of Braves hurlers with another 15 in the 1993 NLCS: John Smoltz, Kent Mercker, and Mark Wohlers, the last of whom would later be immortalized as the third-fastest pitcher in the major leagues. The last team to do it was the 2013 Tigers, who were knocked out of the ALDS by the Athletics shortly after Max Scherzer, Drew Smyly, and Joaquin Benoit combined for 16 whiffs in Game 1.
On Tuesday evening, the Indians added their names to the list, becoming the 11th team in major-league postseason history to strike out at least 15 batters with three or fewer pitchers in a game. Their weapons of choice? First was Corey Kluber, who set down eight batters in the first three frames and totaled nine strikeouts on the night. That’s better than Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, and Orlando Hernandez, all of whom racked up just seven strikeouts through the first three frames of their respective World Series appearances.
Kluber retired six of nine batters via sinker, reserving his fastest heater of the evening–a 93.4 mph fastball–for a first-inning strikeout of Kris Bryant, and returning with his curveball in the third inning to catch Addison Russell and Bryant low in the zone. His command of the strike zone was as impressive as the results it garnered: through six innings, Kluber dispatched 11 first-pitch strikes and raised a full count to just three of 22 batters faced.
Behind Kluber, Indians’ skipper Terry Francona deployed Andrew Miller, whose 0.00 postseason ERA and 15.8 SO/9 rate has accelerated the heart rates of every opposing batter since October 6. Miller’s dominance was tested in the seventh inning, grooving 13 of 21 pitches outside the strike zone to set the table for the Cubs’ long-anticipated rally.
Against the bottom of the Cubs’ order, the left-hander evoked the image of a spectral Chris Hemsworth, a la the 2016 Ghostbusters remake: the muscles were in the right place, the potential for dominance was there, but something looked just a little bit off. Luckily for the Indians, Miller recovered with back-to-back strikeouts to close out the seventh, and returned in the eighth to close the door on the Cubs’ last significant rally of the evening.
Closer Cody Allen put the final flourishes on the Indians’ entry in the history books, entertaining what Willson Contreras believed to be a home run and Rajai Davis knew was a double before knocking the Cubs down with three strikeouts to close out the Tribe’s first win of the Series.
By several yardsticks, Jon Lester is a good pitcher. His WARP floated above 5.3 for three consecutive seasons dating back to 2014 and kept company with a respectable 3.10 DRA in 2016. He reached the cusp of 20 pitcher wins in 2016 for the second time in his career, no doubt a hefty bonus easily afforded by the 103-win Cubs, but a nice mark on his career stat line nonetheless.
On Tuesday, Jon Lester was less of a good pitcher. His seven strikeouts were overshadowed by noticeable gaffes in the first inning: a five-pitch walk to Mike Napoli, a five-pitch walk to Carlos Santana, an RBI base hit via Jose Ramirez, topped off with an RBI hit-by-pitch of Brandon Guyer.
Lester appeared to regain some footing in the second and third frames, but was knocked off his perch again in the fourth on a 391-foot home run by Roberto Perez.
If the bullpen had any hope of curbing the Indians’ hot streak, it vanished in the eighth inning on Perez’s second knock of the night, a three-run shot that drove up the price of a Game 1 win to six runs.
No, any comfort afforded the Cubs following their Game 1 defeat rested in the history made by one Kyle Schwarber.
The resilient rookie outfielder returned to the World Series after undergoing intensive surgery to repair the ACL and LCL in his left knee back in April. While an injury of that severity would merit a season-long spell on the disabled list, the Cubs’ dedication to the hot-hitting 23-year-old and the feverish pace of their playoff run saw Schwarber return to the field five months earlier than anticipated.
Schwarber’s return was the stuff of romantic comedies, the heart-pounding eleventh-hour race to the airport for one last look at George Clooney (or Ryan Gosling, or Brad Pitt, or however you’d like to characterize the Cubs’ historic 2016 season). He boarded a private plane from his station in the Arizona Fall League, flew to Cleveland, and landed in time to suit up for Game 1 just a day before the first pitch of the Fall Classic.
While Schwarber was not medically cleared to take a defensive position on the field, the outfielder took to the DH spot with a natural ease. He punished one of Corey Kluber’s sinkers for a first-pitch double in the fourth inning, driving the ball to the warning track and becoming the first non-pitcher to record his first hit of the season in the World Series.
Game 1 is in the books, but there are still three, four, five, or six games left to live and die by. If this is the production rate the Cubs can come to expect from a recently-injured rookie slugger (he also drew a walk against the indomitable Andrew Miller and contributed two strikeouts to the Indians’ historic total), there’s hope for Chicago yet.
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