Brandishing a 2-1 World Series lead, the Cleveland Indians can jump one step closer to an elusive title with a Game 4 win over the Chicago Cubs on Saturday night.

As Cleveland should know, a 3-1 advantage doesn’t guarantee a title. Yet despite the edge, there’s extra pressure to win with its ace on the mound. 

Cleveland will turn back to Corey Kluber, who tossed six scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and no walks during Game 1’s 6-0 victory. The 30-year-old starter will go on short rest against John Lackey, a well-traveled veteran making his fifth World Series start for his third different team.

Heading into Saturday night’s pivotal Game 4, let’s map out each club’s blueprint to notching an important win at Wrigley Field.


Indians: Follow the Kluber-Miller-Allen Formula

With Kluber on the mound, Cleveland’s road map to victory is simple. It’s the same one the AL champions used in Game 1 of both the American League Championship Series and Fall Classic. 

Get six or seven inning stellar innings from the ace before turning the game over to Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Laugh manically as the Cubs grow increasingly defeated with every passing punchout.

On Tuesday night, the superstar trio combined for 15 strikeouts and two walks—both uncharacteristically from Miller, who issued nine free passes all season—during their win. The Cubs made Miller work in his most mortal outing of a spectacular postseason, but the southpaw still submitted six outs without spoiling the shutout.

Kluber has not allowed a run in three of his four postseason starts, and Cleveland’s bullpen kept the shutout intact each time. In two of those outings, manager Terry Francona handed the ball to Andrew Miller and Cody Allen for the final three frames.

For anyone still wondering how Cleveland has survived this long without Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, these three are the answer. They have worked 46.2 of 98 postseason innings with remarkably outstanding results. With anyone else on the mound, things get more interesting:

Leaning on the studs seems simple on paper, but remember that Kluber is working on three days’ rest. The last time he pitched on a short turnaround, he allowed his only two runs over five innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. 

After using Miller and Allen in extended roles the previous day, Francona saved him with his squad still boasting a 3-0 ALCS lead. Bryan Shaw and Mike Clevinger relinquished three runs after a scoreless inning from Dan Otero, the group’s unsung hero. 

Slightly tweaking Plan A to include Otero isn’t cause for major concern, but Bryan Shaw threw 31 pitches Friday, and everyone else looks unequipped to handle a thunderous Cubs offense. Salazar was rusty in his Game 2 playoff debut, surrendering two walks over an inning.

Even though he was dealing, Francona limited Kluber to 88 Game 1 pitches with Game 4 in mind. The three-man rotation means Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin (if necessary) will also start on short rest. If using Kluber in that scenario is risky, Cleveland fans especially can’t feel comfortable testing Bauer or Tomlin’s limits.

It’s a tough ask, but the Indians need another strong, lengthy outing from their ace to stay in the driver’s seat.


Cubs: Keep Short Leash on John Lackey

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, meanwhile, faces different circumstances. They have won both of Lackey’s starts this October, but Maddon yanked the 38-year-old after four shaky innings each time.

Maddon‘s last hook particularly irked the veteran, who entered the fifth inning nursing a 5-0 lead. The skipper removed him with a pitch count of 72 for southpaw Mike Montgomery after putting two men on board.

The always animated Lackey was caught uttering, “You’ve got to be (bleeping) kidding me.” Per CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney, Maddon stood by his choice:

You have to understand I’m dealing with some really highly-charged personalities here, guys that have been there, done that. They’re good and they’re very proud men, so I respect and understand all of that. But at the end of the day, it’s about more than just one person here and what we’re trying to get done.

You have to make some tough decisions and not everybody’s going to like them all the time. But in the moment, I thought it was the right thing to do, and so we did it.

Chicago doesn’t have Miller and Allen, but former starters Montgomery and Travis Wood can provide length if needed. If Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon can shake off some rough appearances, all the better.

Per, Lackey has relinquished a .286/.341/.459 slash line from pitches 76-100. Like most starters, his career efficacy wanes each time passing through the batting order:

Changing locations to Wrigley Field could also force Maddon‘s hand to pinch hit for him early, especially if Kluber stifles Chicago’s offense. Lackey may curse, but the Cubs are concerned with breaking a far more powerful championship spell.


Both Teams: Maximize Defense, Bench

Moving to a National League ballpark created difficult dilemmas for both squads. While Chicago thought better of starting Kyle Schwarber in left field, Cleveland made the bold decision to play Carlos Santana in left field Friday night.

Since Kluber is starting, Francona might have second thoughts about utilizing someone who hadn’t played in the outfield since 2012. Run prevention is the main goal for Game 4, even if it means benching Mike Napoli so Santana can man first base.

Besides, Napoli is batting .153 (20-for-131) since Sept. 1. In Game 3, he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a ninth-inning error that would have lived in infamy if the Cubs won. Benching him doesn’t mean he can’t make an impact, as it gives Cleveland a dangerous pinch-hitting power threat.

NL rules also ensure Rajai Davis will get involved. Whether to hit, run or field, he’ll spell Coco Crisp or Tyler Naquin later in the game. Yet given Naquin‘s struggles (4-for-20, 11 strikeouts), Francona should consider starting the veteran despite not having the platoon advantage against the right-handed Lackey.

As for the Cubs, Schwarber suddenly represents a valuable luxury off the bench. An aggressive Maddon will take out Lackey early if he needs the bat, so plenty of opportunities should arise for the returning slugger to continue his comeback tale.

Albert Almora and Chris Coghlan are both hitless this postseason, so Chicago hasn’t received any bench help aside from Miguel Montero’s game-winning grand slam in Game 1 of the NLCS over the Los Angeles Dodgers. That was the backup catcher’s early playoff hit.

No designated hitter robs everyone of a Schwarber start, but Maddon must pick his spot carefully to find a high-leverage pinch-hitting opportunity. In a potentially low-scoring affair, one swing could alter the game and series entirely. 

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