The last Major League Baseball Game of calendar year 2016 will take place here in a few hours. Perhaps it's that added bit of inevitability that makes an already compelling series that much more so. At some point tonight - or perhaps in the wee hours of tomorrow morning - we'll turn out our baseball lights and let them rest for a few months, with only the on-paper portion of the overall game left to keep our brains occupied until February.
It really wasn't that long ago that Terry Francona was behind the wheel of a prospect-laden, Theo Epstein-created juggernaut. His tenure with the Boston Red Sox featured the initial stress of streak-breaking, but followed that with a half-decade of skyrocketing payrolls and the back breaking weight of impossible expectations. Not even two World Series titles could keep him or his desire to stay in Boston, and now he sits in charge of a Cleveland club that has played the role of underfunded, injured underdog in movie-script fashion.
Come to think of, it's hard to envision Francona and Joe Maddon having done more perfect 180s since, say, the 2008 American League Championship Series. Maddon, his Tampa Bay Rays, and their $65 some million payroll hosted Francona, the Red Sox, and their $160 million squad in a series that would ultimately go to a Game 7. Jon Lester was there, the young upstart for the big-ticket Sox alongside other great young talents in Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia. Coco Crisp was there, too. Maddon was the cool cat, the relaxed and guiding force managing a team who couldn't afford established stars and who played home games in a completely empty stadium. Those Rays weren't big-ticket baseball, but they featured a wealth of great young talent, the likes of Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, Scott Kazmir, and David Price all making their first real waves on a national scale.
When Cleveland and the Chicago Cubs tangle for the final time tonight, a much similar story will unfold, albeit with the managers in distinctly opposing roles from that great series eight years ago. And, of course, over a century of history and angst will be on the line as the Cubs look to take home their first World Series title since 1908. There's immense pressure in that, to be sure, but it does somewhat overlook the fact that the loser of tonight's game will be in the exact same position as these Cubs until they finally win a World Series themselves; either it'll again be the Cubs, or Cleveland will grasp the unwanted title of MLB team with the longest drought since claiming a World Series, the new lovable losers in the league. Cleveland hasn't won a World Series since 1948, but they haven't won a World Series at home since 1920, back when player/manager Tris Speaker - who was a rookie in 1908 - downed Cleveland native Rube Marquard and the Brooklyn Robins to secure the first title in their franchise's history.
Kyle Hendricks will start for the Cubs, but Lester, Aroldis Chapman, and absolutely everyone that dugout will likely be available - even Jake Arrieta's .720 OPS with the bat, if need be. Former AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber will go again on short rest for Cleveland, and the nearly untouchable Andrew Miller will be fresh after having not pitched since Sunday night to back him for as many innings as it may take.
On all accounts, this Game 7 sets up as well suspense-wise as any I can recall, and has the stage set to be the perfect cap to what has already been a damn impressive postseason. I get the feeling this may be one we'll be referencing for years down the road.