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The Narrative Of The 2016 MLB Season

The Chicago Cubs’ World Series title drought went all the way back to 1908. Even just winning the National League pennant had eluded the Cubbies since 1945. The 2016 MLB season was keynoted by Chicago breaking both streaks and winning a historic World Series championship.

Kris Bryant led the way for the Cubs. The third baseman won the NL MVP award with a stat line of .385 on-base percentage/.554 slugging percentage. Bryant hit 39 homers and drove in 102 runs. Across the infield, first baseman Anthony Rizzo had numbers remarkably similar—a .385/.544 stat line, 32 homers and 109 ribbies, as he placed fourth in the MVP voting.

Chicago had the National League’s second-best offense, but it was their league-best pitching that set them apart. Jon Lester went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, while Kyle Hendricks was 16-8 with a dazzling 2.13 ERA. Lester and Hendricks finished 2-3 in the Cy Young voting, while Jake Arrieta was an 18-game winner.

It was a year of great expectation on the North Side, and the Cubbies delivered. While St. Louis, the three-time defending NL Central champ, had a good offense, no one had a big year and the Cardinals were weighed down by mediocre pitching. Chicago had a comfortable seven-game lead by the All-Star break and then blew the division race wide open in the latter part of summer. The Cubs coasted to the #1 seed in the National League playoffs. The Cards stayed in the hunt for what were then two wild-card spots before coming up short on the season’s final day.

The Los Angeles Dodgers had won three straight NL West crowns. The San Francisco Giants had made a strange habit of winning World Series titles in the past three even-numbered years (2010, 2012, 2014). Both the Dodgers and Giants got in the hunt again in 2016.

Los Angeles was led by shortstop Corey Seager. With a .365/.512 stat line and 26 home runs, Seager finished third in the MVP voting. Yasmani Grandal and Justin Turner augmented the attack with 27 homers apiece. Even though rotation ace Clayton Kershaw was limited by injuries to 21 starts, he posted a 1.69 ERA in those appearances. Kenta Maeda was a 16-game winner, and Kenley Jansen had a dominant year out of the bullpen, saving 47 games with a buck-83 ERA.

San Francisco had solid pitching, acquiring Johnny Cueto for the rotation. Cueto went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA, while the ever-reliable Madison Bumgarner won 15 more games with a 2.74 ERA. The Giants were held back by a more pedestrian offense, but they still had catcher Buster Posey and his .362/.434 stat line.

It was San Francisco who went to the early lead. The Giants were up by 6 ½ games at the All-Star break, while the Dodgers led the wild-card standings. Los Angeles started to turn up the heat after the break and was up three games by Labor Day. The Dodgers were able to keep the Giants at arm’s length the rest of the way. Los Angeles would be the 3-seed in the National League. San Francisco survived and still made what was then a single-elimination wild-card game.

The NL East had the defending pennant winner in the New York Mets. With the league’s third-best pitching staff, the Mets were again a contender. Jeurys Familia saved 51 games and setup man Addison Reed was one of baseball’s best, with a 1.97 ERA. The lineup was subpar, but got a power surge from the 30-homer seasons of Yoenis Cespedes and Curtis Granderson.

But the Washington Nationals would be even better. The Nats were top-4 in the National League for both runs scored and staff ERA. Max Scherzer was a 20-game winner and took hom the Cy Young Award. Tanner Roark won 16 games with a 2.83 ERA. And in a huge personnel shift, second baseman Daniel Murphy—a postseason hero for the Mets in 2015—jumped to the Nationals and merely hit .347 with 25 homers and 104 RBIs, good for second in the NL MVP voting. Murphy was one of six Washington players to hit 20 or more homers.

A race that was close early saw the Nationals open up some space in early summer, and they led the Mets by six games at the break. It never got tight. Washington coasted home to the 2-seed in the NL playoff bracket. New York was part of the three-team joust that included San Francisco and St. Louis, as they fought for the two spots in the wild-card game. The Mets earned the right to host that single game.

The Giants-Mets wild-card battle was high drama October baseball. A scoreless tie went to the ninth inning as Bumgarner dueled with Noah Syndergaard. San Francisco reserve Connor Gillespie made himself a hero with a three-run jack in the top of then ninth. Bumgarner closed the 3-0 win. San Francisco would play Chicago in the NL Division Series, while Los Angeles squared off with Washington.

Cleveland had their own streak of postseason futility to contend with. While the Indians had made the World Series as recently as the late 1990s, the Tribe hadn’t won a title since 1948. Their 2016 edition was well-balanced, finishing second in the American League for both runs scored and composite ERA. Corey Kluber was an 18-game winner and finished third in the Cy Young voting. A great bullpen that included Dan Otero and his 1.53 ERA was further strengthened by the trade deadline pickup of Andrew Miller. The lefty would post a 1.55 ERA for the Indians.

The offense was led by veteran first baseman Mike Napoli, and his 34 homers and 101 RBIs. But it got some needed juice from the young infielders, 22-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor and 23-year-old third baseman Jose Ramirez, who each batted over .300.

While the two-time defending AL pennant winner and reigning World Series champion Kansas City Royals were a division rival, Cleveland’s key challenger this year would be the Detroit Tigers. Detroit had legends in Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. The former batted .316, hit 38 homers and drove in 108 runs. The latter was a 16-game winner and the Cy Young runner-up.

Kansas City led a tightly packed AL Central race on Memorial Day, but the Royals began to fade in early summer. Cleveland was in first place by the break, and by a comfortable 6 ½ games over the Tigers. The Tribe was not seriously challenged as they won the Central and secured the 2-seed in the American League. The Tigers hung in the wild-card race until the final weekend before being eliminated.

The American League’s best team in the regular season was the Texas Rangers. It certaily wasn’t due to their pitching—while Cole Hamels won 15 games and Sam Dyson saved 38, the Rangers finished 13th in the AL for staff ERA. But they could hit. Especially third baseman Adrian Beltre, who batted .300, drilled 32 homers and racked up 104 RBIs. Rougned Odor hit 33 more homers and Elvis Andrus batted .302.

In a division that had the Angels’ MVP-winning outfielder Mike Trout, and an up-and-coming team in the Astros, the Rangers dominated. By Labor Day, their division lead was a comfortable 9 ½ games. They cruised to the top seed in the American League, while everyone else fell short of postseason play.

It was the AL East who had the deepest division and the sport’s best race in 2016. The Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles were all contenders. All three would make the playoffs and the AL East race stayed tight into September

Boston had the league’s most potent offense. Mookie Betts was then a rising star, and his .318 batting average, 113 RBIs, 122 runs scored and 26 steals got him runner-up in the MVP voting. The great David Ortiz, in his final season, ripped 38 homers, drove in 127 runs and had an OBP of .401. Hanley Ramirez hit 30 homers with 111 RBIs. Dustin Pedroia hit .318, while Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. all had 20-plus homers. And on the pitching side? Merely the AL Cy Young Award winner, with Rick Porcello winning 22 games with a 3.15 ERA.

Toronto had muscle of their own, as Josh Donaldson had a .404 OBP, hit 37 homers and drove in 99 runs. Edwin Encarcion muscled up for 42 bombs and 127 ribbies. And a league-best pitching staff was led 20-game winner J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez going 15-2.

Baltimore got monster power production from Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis, who combined to hit 85 home runs. Manny Machado had a terrific all-around year at shortstop, batting .294 with 37 home runs, 96 RBIs and a top-5 MVP finish. Chris Tillman led the rotation by winning 16 games and an excellent bullpen was anchored by Zach Britton, who saved 47 games with an incredible 0.54 ERA.

The Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Orioles all took turns with the lead. Boston led on Memorial Day, Baltimore was up at the break, and Toronto was atop the standings on Labor Day. But it was always within a game or so. It was the Red Sox who would get space in September, gradually nudging out, and ultimately winning by four games. The Blue Jays finished second and would host the Orioles in the wild-card game after both teams held off the Tigers on the final weekend.

Just like in the NL, the AL wild-card game was a tense thriller, with some great pitching. A 2-2 tie went to the 11th inning. To the mystery of everyone on the planet, Britton never got in the game. Encarcion delivered a three-run blast that won it 5-2 and sent Toronto on to play Texas in the AL Division Series. Boston would match up with Cleveland in the other ALDS round.

The first round of the American League playoffs were relatively free of drama. While two of the Indians-Red Sox games were good ones, Cleveland won both and also beat up Boston’s 17-game winner David Price for an easy victory. The Tribe advanced with a sweep of the best-of-five round.

Toronto made an early statement when they went to Texas and dropped a 10-1 rout on the Rangers. The Blue Jays then took Game 2, and came home to win an extra-inning battle in Game 3. For the second straight year, the Blue Jays were on their way to the ALCS.

Chicago’s bid for history began when Lester outdueled Cueto in a 1-0 thriller to open the series. The Cubs held serve at home, but dropped a 13-inning affair in Game 3 and trailed 5-2 in the ninth inning of Game 4. With a Lester-Cueto rematch looming for a decisive Game 5, Chicago stunned the San Francisco crowd with four runs in the ninth. The Cubs were moving on.

The best Division Series battle was the one between Los Angeles and Washington. They split the first four games and came to the nation’s capital for a winner-take-all battle. Scherzer was brilliant and led 1-0 in the seventh. A solo blast from Joc Pederson tied the game and chased Scherzer. L.A. scored four times in the inning. Washington cut the lead to 4-3. Dodger manager Dave Roberts emptied his bullpen to preserve the lead, and it ended with Kershaw—who had started Game 4—getting the final two outs with the winning runs on base.

The ALCS between Cleveland and Toronto was marked by solid pitching both ways, but no one was better than Miller. Appearing in four games, Miller worked almost eight innings, allowing no runs and only three hits. The Indians won the first three games by a combined score of 8-3. After dropping Game 4, they won the finale 3-0—with Miller working 2 2/3 innings of one-hit ball. Cleveland was going to the World Series.

When Chicago opened the NLCS by beating Los Angeles 8-4, it looked like business as usual for baseball’s best regular season team. But the Cubbie bats went silent and Dodger pitching threw two straight shutouts. Now, it looked like business as usual for one of professional sports’ most suffering fan bases. But the Chicago bats awoke—23 runs over the next three games and a six-game series win that finally ended the pennant drought.

Either the Cubs or the Indians were going to the win the World Series. Which fan base would finally get some relief? The Series opened in Cleveland, with 2016 being the last year that homefield advantage for the Fall Classic was not decided on merit. Kluber tossed a 6-0 shutout. Even though Chicago won Game 2, the Tribe squeaked out a 1-0 win Wrigley, with Miller getting another win. Then Kluber won again in Game 4. Cleveland, a heavy underdog, was one win away.

But the Cubs still had the deeper pitching. Lester won Game 5. Arrieta won Game 6. Hendricks was cruising along in Game 7, as Chicago opened a 5-1 lead in the fifth inning. Then Hendricks was pulled. Cleveland scored twice, but still trailed 6-3 in the eighth. Then they scored three times, capped off by a stunning two-run blast from Rajai Davis. We had a 6-6 tie in Game 7 of the World Series.

As if the story couldn’t get more dramatic, there was a brief burst of heavy rain. The game was delayed for 17 minutes. Just enough time for the Cubs to mentally regroup. They scored twice in the top of the 10th inning.  The Indians answered with one, but couldn’t get the tying run across. Chicago had won one of baseball’s all-time greatest games, 8-7. And after 108 years, they were bringing the World Series trophy to the Windy City’s North Side.