The Cubs’ offense is mired in their worst slump since the NLCS, allowing themselves to be lured out of their approach at some points, executing poorly on hitter’s pitches in hitter’s counts at others, and making hard contact that goes tragically unrewarded at still others. That’s why it took them until the top of the ninth to push across the single run they needed to tie the game.
Top Play (WPA): Once extra innings arrived, the game seesawed for a while, waiting for someone to assemble a rally without tripping over themselves. (Each team gave away outs on the base paths and missed promising scoring chances during the first nine frames.) In the top of the 13th, it looked like another Cubs rally was doomed to fail. With one out, Ben Zobrist singled, then stole second base. Tommy La Stella was hit on the quadriceps by a 1-1 fastball, and the Cubs were in business. Alas, Addison Russell struck out. He had a great at-bat, falling behind 0-2 on a looking strike and hard foul ball and then taking three straight balls to run the count full. He fouled off two more on a full count, but Carlos Torres got him swinging on the eighth pitch of the showdown.
The Brewers then faced a dilemma. Miguel Montero was due up, and with the Cubs out of position players to use as pinch-hitters, Travis Wood loomed as the sure on-deck batter. Craig Counsell elected to intentionally walk Montero, loading the bases. Wood stepped in, and took a huge hack at the first pitch. Whoosh! It was an impressive swing, as swings from pitchers go. Wood had a little barrel tip right before cutting it loose. He looked like Javy Baez, or at least like the former version of Wood, the starter who launched a real, live grand slam against the White Sox in 2013. He was nowhere close to hitting the ball, but maybe that swing unnerved Torres. The Brewer reliever didn’t serve up anything in the strike zone thereafter, walking Wood and forcing home the go-ahead run (+0.315 WPA).
Bottom Play (WPA): This game couldn’t end so smoothly, though. There were snags, rough patches and forks in the road every time either team attempted to advance toward victory on Wednesday night, and even as Wednesday night surrendered to Thursday morning, this contest refused to go quietly. Jonathan Villar led off the Brewers’ half of the 13th inning with a ringing double to the gap in left-center field (-0.244 WPA), putting the tying run 180 feet away with three more excruciating outs separating the Cubs from their hotel beds, three outs rising now, as they drew nearer, less like the rolling hills over which cartoon characters used to chase each other at the end of the episode and more like sheer mountain faces, unforgiving and grey, hopeless, unbeatable.
Naturally, this game, this game which the Cubs had refused to let die in the top of the ninth, which they had so unnaturally drawn back from its fall into the abyss in the bottom of the 12th, would retaliate by holding us all hostage, forever. The Brewers would score, but only once. The teams would go back to displaying their incompetence mostly on offense, and the night would wear thin. The great glass panels that partially enclose Miller Park would slowly show the dawn of another day, still cold, and the game would go on until the sun had risen in full and shined in some poor fielder’s eyes, in every fielder’s eyes, because they didn’t design this park to play games in the morning, you know, and only then, in the most arbitrary and meaningless way, after another half-dozen hours of punishment, would we all be exonerated for the crime of rooting for more baseball when there ought not to have been any more.
Thankfully, it didn’t happen that way. Sure, it took five pitches (including a mound visit from Chris Bosio to sort out how Wood and the defense ought to respond to Scooter Gennett’s indefensible desire to bunt) to get an out, and another nine to simply pass Jonathan Lucroy on to first base without something worse happening. (During that plate appearance, Villar moved to third base on a wild pitch, increasing this reporter’s mounting sense of gathering doom.) Sure, it took two more pitchers (the remainder of the Cubs’ available roster) to set down the final two batters. Still, it happened. The Cubs escaped. Just as they had in the 12th inning, they escaped, and this time, it meant they could all heave a sigh of relief and hurry to the bus.
Key Moment: Hector Rondon cruised through the 11th inning. It was a gorgeous inning, reminiscent of almost every one Rondon has thrown this season. It cost him only nine pitches to slice through the top third of the Milwaukee lineup. Alas, in the 12th, things went worse. Carter led off by hitting a scorching-hot ground ball Tommy La Stella couldn’t turn into an out. Then Rondon walked Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and the water really began to bubble and boil. With two on and nobody out, Joe Maddon brought on Wood to face Domingo Santana. Unfortunately for Wood, Santana is one of the league’s most patient hitters, and he’s right-handed. He walked, which had some absurdly high likelihood of happening, given the matchup, maybe 25 percent, and so the bases were loaded for Hernan Perez.
Maddon went to the mound again. He called Kris Bryant in from left field, and ordered him to don an infielder’s mitt. The Cubs would deploy a five-man infield. Perez did his best to beat it; every swing said he was trying to lift the ball. He finally succeeded, lofting an 0-2 pitch into medium-shallow center field. Dexter Fowler had plenty of time to line up under it and fire home, and he did. The throw wasn’t terrifically strong, and it wasn’t very accurate. (C’est la vie, when Fowler is your center fielder. His arm is poor.) But it didn’t matter. Carter had held at third. He’d held! Why? The only possible explanations are a misread of the depth of the fly, an unfounded fear that Jason Heyward (who could have gotten there, but only just) would call off his friend and teammate in an emasculating way and throw him out, or a simple case of brain freeze. It doesn’t matter what the explanation is. Carter froze, the mediocre throw was good enough for Montero to corral it, and the bases remained loaded.
Now the Cubs switched things up. Bryant would move over to first base, trading gloves with Javier Baez (in for Anthony Rizzo after pinch-running in the ninth). The five-man infield would remain, but the team would try to turn two. Only Wood is an extreme fly-ball pitcher, so it didn’t matter much. He got Aaron Hill out his own way, inducing a pop-up to Bryant, and when he coaxed another weak pop-up out of Martin Maldonado (on a full count, no less), the Cubs were, miraculously, out of the inning.
Joe Maddon managed the shit out of that frame. He squeezed out a win for the Cubs on a night when they had no business winning. It was masterful, and it was beautiful. Credit, too, to bench coach Davey Martinez and to Gary Jones, who handles a lot of defensive positioning, especially on the infield, for the painstaking work they did all night. Defense, execution, and attention to detail helped the Cubs walk the highwire to a win.
Trend to Watch: Jason Heyward continues to be terrible. That’s really the only fair way to put it. We can (and do) highlight the things he’s still managed to do fairly well, like working walks and playing defense and (sometimes) baserunning, but at a certain point, I’m committing journalistic malpractice if I tap dance around the issue anymore. The Cubs’ eight-year, $184-million offseason investment has been nothing but pyrite for a quarter of a season now. He’s miscast as a second hitter on his best day, because of his contact rate and batted-ball profile, but right now, he looks misplaced anywhere in the top half of the batting order. Good (but not great) fastballs continue to overheat him and sizzle just over the sweet spot of his bat. When he doesn’t miss altogether, he makes weak contact, as he did in the eighth inning Wednesday night. The most costly out the Cubs made all night, and almost the Bottom Play above, was Heyward’s pop-up with runners on the corners and one out, trailing 1-0. His swing path is a mess; his timing is a mess. He seems to jump away from everything close to him, including many pitches that catcher the inside corner. Heyward has a long track record that says he’ll eventually find his way. Right now, that success seems far, far away.
Another trend: Maddon managed brilliantly on Wednesday night. He had a crummy hand dealt to him, though. The Cubs need to fix their roster. Carrying 13 pitchers is a bad idea most of the time, but an even worse one if you’re inexplicably committed to carrying three catchers, too. Something has to give. Tim Federowicz and Trevor Cahill took crucial plate appearances on Wednesday night. Hell, Wood took one; it just happened to turn out okay. More times than not, you lose games like this one because of roster flaws like those.
What’s Next: These two teams play once more Thursday afternoon, before the Cubs have to hop on a plane to San Francisco. It’s a painfully early (for teams who played until midnight) 12:45 start, with Jason Hammel squaring off against Junior Guerra. Read more about the matchup in our series preview. You can watch the game on CSN Chicago, if you’re in the Chicagoland area.
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Hanisch—USA Today Sports