The pendulum of pressure, that great equalizer of anxiety, swung in the favor of the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday evening when a fly ball floated into the nexus between center and right field. The ball was harmless. It looked destined to land in an outfielder's glove, not upset the balance of composure in this World Series and pave the path toward a seventh game.
During the first five games of the Fall Classic, before absorbing a 9-3 pounding at the hands of the Cubs on Tuesday, the Cleveland Indians beheld the mantle of maturity. Terry Francona operated like a master tactician. Their lineup feasted on mistakes. Their pitchers toyed with the youthful Cubs hitters. They took two of three at Wrigley Field, and returned home with two opportunities to end a 68-year championship drought.
Then in Tuesday's first inning, Cubs shortstop Addison Russell lifted a fly into the night, and Cleveland's evening collapsed. The ball hung in the air as center fielder Tyler Naquin and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall ventured toward it. The two men crossed paths, and a team that had looked so impervious to the surroundings earlier in this series suddenly became swallowed up by them.
Inside the din of Progressive Field, Naquin explained later, he could not hear Chisenhall yelling, "You got it." He ceded ground to Chisenhall. The ball landed between them. Two runs scored, which turned a one-run inning into a three-run inning and sucked the life out of the ballpark.
"It's one of those deals you wish you could take back," Naquin said.
The communication between the two men could be summarized by the futile gesture made by Chisenhall after the double fell. He raised his hands in confusion. It would only get worse. Russell smashed a grand slam two innings later to provoke the rout. He tied a World Series record with six RBIs.
As he watched his offense spark to life with three home runs among 13 hits, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon shook off the complacency that hampered him earlier in the series. He had asked Aroldis Chapman to secure the final eight outs in Game 5. Two days later, after 52/3 innings of two-run baseball from Jake Arrieta and an inning from Mike Montgomery, Maddon deployed Chapman in the seventh inning again, using him for four outs and sending him back out for the ninth, even after Chicago's lead swelled to seven.
The divergent performances of the two teams set the stage for a curious Game 7. In control for a week, the Indians enter the final night of baseball in 2016 on their heels. They will rely upon their ace, Corey Kluber, who earned victories in Game 1 and Game 4. He returns to the mound after only three days of rest for the second time this series, backed by relief aces Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
After stumbling this weekend, the Cubs can become the first team since the 1985 Royals to recover from a 3-1 deficit in the Fall Classic, and the first team since the 1979 Pirates to do so on the road. Chicago starter Jon Lester will join Chapman in the bullpen.
"Tomorrow is a day you have to put it all on the table," Russell said. "I wouldn't even say the luckiest is going to win. It's the people that come up in the big situations."
The atmosphere in the Cleveland clubhouse was subdued. The players forced smiles when asking about embracing a seventh game. Francisco Lindor, the Indians' superlative young shortstop, joked that as children, no player daydreamed about Game 1 or Game 3.
But these Indians did not intend for this series to last this long. Chicago needed the longest outing of Chapman's career to survive Game 5. Granted new life, the Cubs throttled Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin from the start Tuesday.
When Tomlin hung a curveball in the first inning, Kris Bryant bashed a solo homer. Tomlin could not replicate the off-speed success he experienced in Game 3. He gave up a single to first baseman Anthony Rizzo on a changeup and another single to outfielder Ben Zobrist on a curveball. Then Russell popped his two-run double into the sky.
"That was an unfortunate play," Francona said. "Because we thought we were out of the inning."
Before Tomlin exited in the third, Naquin and Chisenhall combined for another miscommunication. When Bryant popped up between the two, Chisenhall cut off his center fielder to make the catch. Naquin slid behind him, and glared at his teammate as he pulled himself off the grass. Jason Kipnis placed a hand on Naquin's chest and guided him back toward center field.
The comedy ended soon after. Tomlin loaded the bases with a walk to Kyle Schwarber and singles by Rizzo and Zobrist. Francona hoped reliever Dan Otero could induce a ground ball from Russell. Instead, Russell walloped a fastball over the wall for his third homer in these playoffs. "That might have been the biggest," Bryant said.
Up by a sizable margin, the Cubs could have cruised. But Maddon showed urgency in the seventh. With two runners aboard and the lead down to five, he deployed Chapman. Chapman dinged his ankle while covering first base on a groundout by Lindor, then returned for the eighth. And even after Rizzo launched a two-run homer in the top of the ninth, Chapman came back out.
"Listen, I've been at this ballpark when we were up seven or nine, and they came back," Maddon said.
The maneuver represented a contrast for Maddon. It also revealed the imperative of the moment. He removed Chapman after a leadoff walk in the ninth, but his point was made.
As Game 7 looms, the drama for this World Series figures only to rise. Calm for so long, the Indians looked unnerved at times on Tuesday. Toothless too often, the Cubs demonstrated the ferocity of their offense. Now comes the end, one last clash between two teams who appear so evenly matched after six games. This is why they play seven.