In any baseball game that ends with a score of 9-3, especially any World Series game that ends with a score of 9-3, the central question any casual spectator is inevitably going to have is “so when did it turn from a close call into a laugher?” This question, more than any other, defines the blowout win or loss, since it gives an idea of how truly one-sided the game was. Did the winning team jump out to a 9-0 lead in the first and never look back? Or was this a 1-1 game until the eighth inning when some bullpen mismanagement turned a leftover smoldering campfire into Chernobyl?
The character of the blowout game, almost moreso than the close game or the average win or loss, is deeply determined by its sequence of events, and one can never quite get away from talking about a blowout win or loss without postulating when, precisely, that win or loss went from a presumed outcome to an academic assumption. Fortunately for those of us lucky enough to be writing about the World Series from the East Coast, the defining moment for Game 6 happened fairly early–and fairly definitively–when Addison Russell, up with the bases loaded, knocked a 2-0 Dan Otero curveball into the seats.
What was a 3-0 nail-biter suddenly became a 7-0 cakewalk for the Cubs, and while the Indians did their best to claw back into the game, it really was all over but for the shouting. And so when you read about this game today, you’re going to be reading a lot about Russell’s home run. Expect people, especially sportswriters who don’t have to write about Cleveland often, to have a bunch of lines like this: “The Fumble. The Drive. The … Grand Slam?” It’s a perfectly written narrative moment, and a lovely little archetype of the series’ dramatic turn towards a “win or go home” Game 7.
Russell, the youngest player since Mickey Mantle to hit a World Series grand slam, powers a Cubs team that is predominantly too young to rent a car to a rout in a game that continued to propel their improbable comeback story. It’s almost too perfect. Which of course means that you will have already read eight articles about how it happened, two oral histories, and at least one aesthetic analysis about the feeling of when Russell’s fly ball hit the stands. So, I’ll spare you that and instead focus on the moments leading to Russell’s home run, as they are almost as fully defining for Game 6 as the big fly itself.
Indeed, even the runs that led up to the home run–Kris Bryant’s own first inning home run and Russell’s first two RBIs, scored thanks in part to an error that set them up on the bases–can be seen as more crucially important scene setters than the home run itself, given that they removed any margin of error for Indians starter Josh Tomlin. There’s no easy way to pitch to the Cubs’ lineup. But when the Cubs’ lineup is starting to see the ball again and you are Josh “ah, right, I have average stuff” Tomlin, the going is going to be even tougher.
So when Tomlin got the first two outs of the game, things probably felt pretty good! When he entered the third inning down 3-0, things probably felt a lot dicier. As the Indians proved, 3-0 is no insurmountable lead. But Tomlin would need to keep it as close to 3-0 as possible in order to keep the game within reach for his offense, and he was now riding a knife’s edge. This fact could not have made Kyle Schwarber’s 3-2 walk very pleasant. Tomlin worked his way back from a 2-0 start in Schwarber’s plate appearance to a full count and then walked the resurgent slugger to get to the heart of the order.
Then, faced with the guy who took him yard just four outs ago, Tomlin got Bryant to fly out. One down, one closer to the offense hopefully getting things back on track. And so the 0-2 count Tomlin got Anthony Rizzo into must have felt really gratifying. Metaphorically, Tomlin had been having a rough day–half his fault, half just circumstances–and the 0-2 count was him waking up after deciding to get a good night’s sleep, feeling refreshed, and committing himself to the day ahead instead of looking back with regret.
The subsequent single into right field after Rizzo worked the count to 2-2 was, metaphorically speaking, the jelly donut that Tomlin decided to eat to make himself feel better after running out of hot water in the shower–a deeply self-destructive thing. So back on track, right? A sluggish ball to Ben Zobrist, but a quick turnaround to a 1-2 count, and things are looking good once again. A double play gets you out of the inning and … ah, he singled. Yes, Zobrist singled and the bases are juiced and here comes the manager.
And freeze frame on Terry Francona taking the ball from Tomlin. This is the moment the game changed, and it was totally the right move, and I’m sure everyone on the Indians save for maybe Tomlin agreed with it. Certainly, if there’s any time to be aggressive with one’s pen, it’s in the World Series. No one wants to be a Grady Little. But at that moment, we were all riding on the assumption that the game would remain close and be determined by the Indians’ and Cubs’ dominant bullpens. As it happened, Otero’s curve and Russell’s eye meant that the narrative of these lockdown pens would be lifted for one night, and all of Tomlin’s miscues would come home to roost.
Right or wrong, Tomlin will wear the Indians’ loss, and but for a couple of unfortunate runs in the first and the manifestation of pressured pitching in the third, the story might be completely different. The game’s score may turn on Russell’s one swing of the bat, but the game’s character, to me, turns on Schwarber’s non-swing and Rizzo's and Zobrist’s unassuming singles. Not because they’re more lunch-paily than a home run–let it be known that I am a pro home run candidate–but because they painted the scene and produced the background elements for the 9-3 outcome before anyone could tell it was coming.
The three baserunners are the foreshadowing elements that you come back to after the surprise ending to kick yourself for not seeing it coming–little hints that the surprise ending of a Game 7 was there if you looked for it all along.