By Larry Fine
(Reuters) – Despite the Cinderella storylines about two of baseball’s underdog franchises reaching the World Series, the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians fully deserve to be battling for Major League Baseball’s title.
Chicago, despite their so-called “Curse of the Billy Goat”, began the season as favorites to win baseball’s top prize and the young Cubs proved they have come of age by winning a major league-leading 103 games.
The Indians, whose powerhouse lineup reached a pair of World Series in the 1990s, overcame numerous obstacles to climb to the top of the American League, relying on stellar starting pitching in the regular season and a killer bullpen in the playoffs.
The Cubs are warm betting favorites for the Series.
The winners of the best-of-seven starting in Cleveland on Tuesday will relieve their city of decades of frustration and set off a frenzied celebration.
The 112th World Series is sure to end one epic title drought, with the Indians’ last triumph coming 68 years ago and the Cubs waiting a mind-boggling 108 seasons since their last championship.
The atmosphere should be electric in both Chicago, where the Wrigleyville neighborhood surrounding venerable Wrigley Field will be packed with title-hungry supporters, and at Progressive Field, where a fan has set an insistent tone with his rhythmic pounding on a bass drum from the outfield bleachers.
Chicago boasts a more potent lineup, having scored more runs (808-777) and hit more home runs (199-185) than the Indians in the regular season, though the Tribe have more variety in their game, with 134 stolen bases to 66 for the Cubbies.
Both clubs feature emerging young players, fueling the hope that more Fall Classics are in their future.
The Cubs have four standout players aged 24 or younger in their lineup in Kris Bryant, National League Championship Series co-most valuable player Javier Baez, versatile Willson Contreras and Addison Russell alongside 27-year-old slugger Anthony Rizzo.
Cleveland, whose 52-year major pro championship drought was ended earlier this year by LeBron James and the NBA Cavaliers, boast shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Jose Ramirez.
The 22-year-old Lindor, who wears cleats with “Believeland” — a rallying cry this year for Clevelanders — written on the side, batted .301 with 15 home runs and 78 RBIs and played sensational defense as an All-Star in his first full season.
Ramirez, 24, hit .312 with 11 homers and 76 RBIs, primarily as a third baseman. He swiped 22 bases and Lindor stole 19.
Pitching has been a key ingredient for both clubs.
Chicago’s veteran starting rotation of Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, lefty Jon Lester, National League earned run average (ERA) leader Kyle Hendricks and righty John Lackey helped them lead the majors in ERA at 3.15.
Cleveland, led by 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, had the American League’s second-best ERA of 3.84, in a league where more runs are scored due to use of a designated hitter for the pitcher.
The Indians were missing top offensive player Michael Brantley this season due to injury and resourceful manager Terry Francona has juggled his rotation with late season injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar and recently Trevor Bauer.
Still, Cleveland has posted a 1.77 ERA in the postseason with a heavy assist from relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
The Cubs added their own splendid finishing piece this season with a trade for fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman, who routinely breaks 100 mph (161 kph) with his fastball.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue/Andrew Both)