The Cubs’ marathon loss to the Giants Monday night hurts, but only if we first remove context. From my fellow Wrigleyvillers, you’ll hear exceedingly reasonable takes focused on the fact that the Cubs anticipated a tough matchup with Madison Bumgarner, that Game Three was always the one they expected to be the most difficult, that pushing the game to extra innings and getting mostly Good Jake is a minor victory in itself. They’re right, of course, and you should listen to them. After all, the Cubs are up 2-1 in the series with two shots at one victory, and the pitching matchup tonight—John Lackey versus Matt Moore—is favorable.
But I’ve got a bone to pick with one Joseph John Maddon. Last postseason, I analyzed Maddon’s potential matchups, bullpen usage, and general tactics by looking at his history of playoff appearances with the Rays, and subsequently praised the bespectacled skipper’s bullpen management. In Game Three, however, a series of tactical blunders proved consequential at the game’s many turning points, and Maddon put his team in a poor position to win a tug-of-war against the scrappy Giants.
Let’s talk about it.
With Jake Arrieta looking strong, his fastball firmly in the mid-90s and his slider/cutter dazzling Giants hitters, the first five innings of the game were smooth sailing for Maddon. As long as Arrieta had his good stuff and could keep the Giants off the bases, the manager would have an easy job. Brandon Belt’s sac fly in the fifth brought San Francisco within one, but with Bumgarner looking vulnerable, the Cubs appeared confident.
The Cubs’ half of the sixth proved pivotal, however. With a 3-2 lead, a fully rested bullpen, and Javier Baez on second base via error and fielder’s choice, Arrieta stepped to the plate. Maddon no doubt believed that Arrieta could, and should, go one more inning, but with a razor-thin lead in an elimination game, a manager must seize every advantage in an effort to score. Dexter Fowler loomed on deck, with the meat of the Cubs’ order behind him, and bridging the gap to those hitters was crucial. Arrieta took the at-bat against Giants righty Derek Law, though, forcing the Cubs’ three lefty bats on the bench to grab some pine. Law, a reliever with a full and varied arsenal whose home run per fly ball rate is better than league average, was most vulnerable facing a high contact hitter with doubles power like Tommy La Stella, not the mighty-but-still-a-pitcher Arrieta. Arrieta flew out and Fowler struck out to end the Cubs’ threat.
Arrieta put down the Giants quickly, one-two-three, in the sixth, but scoring chances the rest of the evening were scant.
The next opportunity for Maddon to leave his imprint on the game came in Giants’ half of the very next inning. Arrieta’s night was done, having left with the slim lead intact and the Cubs’ cabal of fireballers waiting to enter in succession, and Maddon tapped set-up man Pedro Strop to begin the seventh. The slider-spinning righty induced two quick outs—a Gregor Blanco groundout and a Kelby Tomlinson flyout—before Maddon got cute.
Maddon, in a fictive move fitting of manager Montgomery Burns (“It’s called playing the percentages! It’s what smart managers do to win ballgames.”), went to his nominal left-handed specialist and Game Two hero, Travis Wood, to face Denard Span. Maddon chose to go for a double switch, putting top defender Jason Heyward in right, moving Ben Zobrist to left, and having Wood take Jorge Soler’s spot in the lineup. It was a sensible switch, with the pitcher’s spot due up in four hitters. Wood needed only one pitch to dispatch Span on a flyout, but Maddon’s process was defensible: Wood faced 120 left-handed hitters in 2016 and boasted a .447 OPS-allowed.
With the inning over, Maddon and the Cubs looked out of the woods. The bottom of their lineup was due in the top half of the eighth, and pinch hitters would certainly follow. Willson Contreras hit for Miguel Montero (with raison de commencer Arrieta out of the game),
Maddon’s defensible decision spilled into the next inning, though, and became a grievous mistake, as he left Wood in the game to face Brandon Belt, the Giants’ best lefty. Belt deposited a 1-1 pitch into left for a single and Maddon pulled the plug on Wood, and the bullpen parade began in earnest. Hector Rondon, whose struggles over the final two months of the season received quite a bit of attention, walked the Giants’ biggest threat in Buster Posey, and Maddon determined he had seen enough. The tense situation called for the Cubs’ best reliever, he thought, and Aroldis Chapman entered the game in a double switch with Albert Almora, Jr., who took over for Heyward in right and slotted in to bat fourth in the Cubs’ ninth.
Now, reviewing a single game’s managerial tactics are necessarily a form of second guessing, and one who does it receives the benefit of hindsight. But procedurally, Maddon’s decisions in the eighth—to leave Wood in, to go to Rondon and Chapman, and to double switch Jason Heyward from the game—were all, in the moment, questionably optimal. Carl Edwards, Jr., arguably the Cubs’ current second-best reliever, remained in the ‘pen all night, without an opportunity to mow the Giants down with his electric fastball; Chapman has noted issues with pitching before the ninth and in non-save situations. From a personnel standpoint, they might not have been the best decisions, but the marginal gains from choosing other relievers in different spots were small, and Maddon could have rested easy knowing he threw three of their best pitchers in key spots.
Inexcusable, though, is the second double switch. Heyward, a defensive whiz, was the Cubs’ ace in the hole on Monday, a substitution luxury only the deepest, most well-rounded teams are afforded. With the pitcher’s spot due up fourth in the ninth, Maddon hedged his bets: Chapman would likely go more than one inning, necessitating a switch in his lineup position, and forcing Heyward out for Almora. It was the key decision of the game—Maddon believed Chapman capable of six outs more than he believed in Edwards, his other option, for three, and he preemptively made the double switch.
You know the rest: Chapman imploded, Justin Grimm bailed him out, and Kris Bryant’s heroics ensured baseball late into the cool San Francisco night. Mike Montgomery twirled four-plus marvelous innings to become an unlikely star. But as the Cubs and Maddon struggled to keep their head above water in the late innings, using up the whole of their bench and all but one pitcher, Bruce Bochy’s Giants tread fairly easily, conserving a host of relievers and setting themselves up for success in the eighth through thirteenth by only pinch hitting in the pitcher’s spot. Edwards sat on the bench meanwhile, Bochy managed masterfully, and the Cubs let victory slip away.
Lead photo courtesy Kelley L. Cox—USA Today Sports.