Let’s hear it for the blowout Game Six. We’re all familiar with the tight Game Six that sends the series to an extra game: the Cardinals breaking the Rangers’ hearts in 2011, the Bloody Sock Game in the 2004 ALCS, the Angels’ comeback in 2002. Historic games all, swinging the momentum of a series dramatically. Undoubtedly worth the years they take off of our lives and the millimeters they take off our fingernails.
But sometimes–especially a week before election day–you want a nice, relaxing game, like Kansas City in 2014 (10-nothing) or Arizona in 2001 (15-2), the kind of game where people are tweeting “We’ll see you tomorrow night!” in the third inning. Of course, it’s only fun if there is a tomorrow night. A blowout Game Six in the wrong direction–one that ends the series (think Boston in 2013)–is just an anticlimax. But a blowout Game Six that keeps the series going, though boring, is the right kind of boring, allowing us to half-focus on the game while we turn the other half of our attention to Game Seven strategy.
Tonight’s game was that sort of game. The problem is that Joe Maddon didn’t seem to realize it. But more on that later.
The team with the third-most runs in the majors scored more than three times for just the second time in the series, knocking out Josh Tomlin, who was pitching on short rest for just the second time in his career, in the 3rd. Tomlin actually looked pretty good for his first six pitches: he seemed to be throwing with pinpoint command, retiring Fowler and Schwarber in four pitches total and showing a great breaking pitch to get Bryant to an 0-2 count. Pitch number 7, though, was a hanging curveball that Bryant unloaded on for a homer to left. Rizzo and Zobrist followed with hits, and it was suddenly clear that Tomlin’s success for the first two batters had been a mirage: he wasn’t fooling anybody. (Even the two outs to that point in the inning were hard-hit.)
Still, Cleveland probably would have gone to the bottom of the inning down just the one run, had it not been for a bizarre error-in-all-but-name off the bat of Addison Russell, who hit a fly ball into right center that center fielder Tyler Naquin and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall both whiffed on, allowing Rizzo and Zobrist to score (Zobrist barreling through Roberto Perez like we were back in the 80s). It was one of three outfield misadventures in the game by Naquin, who had to dive out of Chisenhall’s way in the 3rd and nearly squashed Coco Crisp in left-center in the 6th. He also struck out with the bases loaded and two out; one wouldn’t be surprised if Rajai Davis got the start in center tomorrow.
So the Cubs were up 3-0 going into the bottom of the first, but as we saw in the NLDS, a 3-0 lead is not always Arrieta-proof. It was good enough tonight, though: he was throwing smoke, striking out Carlos Santana on a 95-mph fastball for the first out of the 1st. It wasn’t until the 4th inning that he gave up a hit, or even a second baserunner (the first was a walk of Lindor that should have been a called strikeout a couple of pitches earlier, one of a number of questionable calls from Joe West behind the plate).
The hits in the 4th (a Kipnis double, a Napoli single) did mean a run, but by then it hardly mattered; the top of the 3rd saw the game achieve laugher status. The Cubs loaded the bases on a Kyle Schwarber walk and hits by Bryant and Rizzo; Tomlin then gave way to Dan Otero to face Addison Russell, who worked a 2-0 count before hitting a grand slam to left center to make it 7-0. It was the highlight of a highlight-y night for the Cubs’ 3-4-5-6 hitters: Bryant went 4 for 5, Rizzo 3-5, Zobrist 2-4 with a walk, Russell 2-5 with a homer and a double. It was exactly the kind of all-pistons-firing performance the Cubs have been wishing for all postseason.
(Of course, some of the troubling spots remain troubling. Heyward went 0-4–at one point I wondered when he had been brought in as a defensive replacement, before remembering that he had started–and Javier Baez struck out twice, once on a ball at his eyes that he swung at after it was in the catcher’s glove, like I do in MLB The Show. Baez did get an infield single on a softly-hit ball up the middle, causing Joe Buck and John Smoltz to start talking about what a relief that must be for Joe Maddon. As I recall, it was that kind of damning with faint praise that made Lou Gehrig retire.)
Arrieta made it five and two-thirds, with two runs, the second on a Jason Kipnis homer in the fifth; he did walk three, but at least some of that was West-inspired. Most importantly, there was no one on base for Kipnis’s homer, so Mike Montgomery took over in the sixth with a five-run lead, which he preserved to take the game to the seventh.
Going into the last third of the game, it seemed like both managers were getting the kind of Cubs win they’d prefer, assuming a Cubs win. In a close game they’d both be compelled to throw in the kitchen sink at the first sign of trouble, leaving their pitching staffs depleted for Game 7. With the outcome never in doubt, neither of them had to do anything too drastic, like bring in his closer with more than two innings left to play.
Of course, Maddon did anyway, so we all know what we’ll be talking about tomorrow the instant Chapman goes 2-0 on a batter, or if the Cubs are trying to protect a lead in the 7th and Chapman doesn’t start warming. I try not to second-guess managers too much–I never finished above second place in fifteen years playing fantasy baseball–but I have no idea what drove Maddon to do this. Remember, it was a five-run lead with two on and two out in the 7th. Even given that it’s Francisco Lindor, is there harm in letting him do his worst? Say he hits a homer: all else being equal, you’d love to be up two with seven outs left and Chapman available in the bullpen. You’d love even more to be going into Game 7 with a fresh Chapman, which is probably what would have happened had Maddon just left well enough alone.
Naturally, the baseball gods instantly made Maddon’s decision look, for a moment, more disastrous than anyone could have imagined, when Lindor hit a soft chop to the right side and was ruled safe on the toss to Chapman covering … with Chapman coming up lame on the play. Perhaps judging this turn of events a little too on the nose, the gods reversed everything: replay ruled Lindor out by a nickel’s diameter, while Chapman showed no ill effects in subsequent innings (though he didn’t look totally steady). But the specter of injury just drove home the insanity of Maddon’s decision: a fielding injury is pretty unlikely, but more likely than an injury sitting in the bullpen. The whole principle is that the longer a pitcher is on the mound, the nearer he is to being ineffective, and it is given to none of us to know the hour.
From then on, the game became not at all about the battle over bases and runs and all about the battle over Aroldis Chapman’s pitch count, the battle over what Maddon’s options would be 24 hours later. The Cubs got a major assist in that battle from Javy Baez in the bottom of the 8th, when he fielded an ankle-level throw from Russell and turned a terrific double play to end the inning at 14 pitches rather where it could have been much more. Still, Maddon’s decision loomed over the entire rest of the game. In the top of the 9th, when Bryant got his fourth hit and Rizzo homered to right, my first, sarcastic thought was that at least they had Chapman to hold the 7-run lead. Strop and Wood did then start warming, but not in time to actually start the 9th; Strop came in after Chapman issued a leadoff walk to Guyer. But this points to another bizarre part of Maddon’s decision-making: the idea that, having brought Chapman in, he was bound to leave him in to close. If you’re creative enough to use Chapman in that situation, how are you not also creative enough to take him out going into the 8th, once the “crisis” has passed?
Fortunately, the Cubs will get the chance to make all of this irrelevant tomorrow, and if the big bats work like they did tonight, it may not matter what Chapman does (though Corey Kluber is a more daunting challenge than Josh Tomlin). Or, if Cleveland roughs up Hendricks early, Maddon’s decision will be irrelevant in the other direction. If Chapman melts down tomorrow, though, or if he’s deemed unavailable until it’s too late … well, let’s just say it might not take a Cubs World Championship for Steve Bartman to feel like he’s off the hook.
Image courtesy of Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports.