Remember that the Chicago Cubs have really been behind only once this season, when they trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers two games to one in the National League Championship Series. The Cubs responded by winning the next three games by a combined 23-6 score, earning a trip to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
Now the Cubs are already down to the Cleveland Indians following a 6-0 wipeout in Game 1 of the World Series, tilting the ground as the Cubs chase their first world championship in 108 years.
Here’s the point: the Cubs are running uphill at the moment, however slightly. They haven’t run uphill much this year. And nobody understands the ebbs and flows of a baseball season or series more than the man the Cubs should be most concerned with this October, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona.
“I just think that there’s a lot that can happen tomorrow,” Francona told reporters when asked about the availability of Cleveland’s all-purpose weapon, Andrew Miller (46 pitches), for Game 2 tonight. “One, we might not have the lead. Two, it might rain. Three, we could have a lead and he won’t be available for as much. But we won tonight. I think when you have a lead, you try to win.”
When you have a lead. Sounds simple, right? But there may be nobody in baseball who better understands the concept than Francona. For a manager, knowing when to bunt or hit-and-run is one thing. But it’s another entirely to understand the flow of a game and the resulting impact on a player’s strengths, weaknesses, psyche and limits. And while there may be managers who understand that as well as Francona. Rest assured that nobody has ever understood it better.
How do I know this? I essentially covered Francona during his entire managerial stint in Boston, when he won two World Series and helped guide the Red Sox to five postseason appearances. Few managers better identify the pressure points of a game or a season. More than anything else, Francona knew and understood what his players were feeling, and he often understood what they were feeling in the opposing dugout, too.
For example: in Game 3 of this year’s American League Division Series with Boston, the Red Sox and Indians were scoreless in the fourth inning. The Indians had first and second with nobody out. And yet, in Boston against the best offensive team in baseball at the pinball machine known as Fenway Park, Francona bunted. He played for a single run. Meanwhile, after runners had been advanced to second and third with one out — and with his season on the line — Boston manager John Farrell allowed right-hander Clay Buchholz to pitch to the left-handed Tyler Naquin with first base open, all while leaving his infield back.
Naquin singled. The Indians took a 2-0 lead and never gave it back during a series in which they led for all but one inning. Boston was swept into the offseason like a pile of autumn leaves.
During that entire series, the Red Sox were running uphill.
Are the Cubs different? Will they bounce back tonight? Maybe. Probably. Who knows? Certainly the Cubs are better than the Red Sox. But the Cubs are still ball players, still people, and Francona has understood that the real fight in the game often exists between the ears of the participants as much as it does on the field. And he has always understood how to ease the burden on his players, how to make the game simpler for them, how to put them in positions to breathe easier, play better and ultimately win.
The Cubs? They are indisputably a confident team, a talented one, a driven one.
But if they are to win their first title in more than a century, they will have to win the subtle mind game that Terry Francona manages as well as anyone in the big leagues.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.