“Always I had in mind some giant, armed in giant force, would come against me here. But this, but you—small, pitiful and twiggy—you put me down…” – Polyphemus (The Odyssey, Book 9, lines 427-430)
Seattle Mariners reliever Cody Martin had to have wondered at the situation he found himself in late into the night of July 31. Tied 6-6 at Wrigley Field and facing the near bottom of the Cubs’ batting order, he could not have expected what came.
Like Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon who had been forewarned that he’d be blinded one day by Odysseus and assumed something far greater that a man would be the one to do it, Martin would have understandably scoffed at any prediction of Jon Lester picking up a bat and felling his team in the bottom of the 12th that night.
Martin and Polyphemus have some things in common, however. Homer’s cyclops is isolated and left to fend for himself when he calls out to his fellow cyclopes for help. Martin has cobbled together parts of two seasons in the majors and pitched below replacement level in both. He was the right guy to be left standing alone on the mound while the Cubs walked off the game in absurdity.
To be fair to Martin, the Mariners had already used four relievers to that point and Martin was clearly out there to pitch as long as he had to. Out there to wear it until something broke, one way or the other.
But just to get to this point, the game had already turned weird long before the clock passed midnight. To try and gather it all up and explain it to someone new to baseball would be overwhelming: Ben Zobrist played three positions, relief pitcher Travis Wood backed up into the ivy for a catch in left field in the seventh inning, and now-forgotten starter Brian Matusz threw the first three innings for the Cubs in his first major league start in four years and surrendered the entirety of the runs Seattle would score that night.
By the twelfth inning, the game had passed into incredulity. The Cubs, down 6-0 after the first three innings, scored two in the fifth, one in the seventh, and then three to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth. Even those three runs were improbable. After Kris Bryant struck out, Anthony Rizzo doubled, Ben Zobrist singled, and Addison Russell lined one deep to left center to score Rizzo.
Still down two runs, Jason Heyward was hit by a pitch (one of just five all season) to load the bases, and Willson Contreras grounded out weakly to third to score Zobrist. Probably sensing the game slipping from his team, Mariners manager Scott Servais asked for a review, but to no avail. Seattle pitcher Steve Cishek, now rattled, threw a wild pitch that was the dagger. Russell scored; the game went to extras.
Three innings later, the Cubs were using displaced closer Hector Rondon, who had already pitched an immaculate eleventh inning. He was pristine again, coaxing two groundouts before striking out Franklin Gutierrez to send his guys up to bat for the final time.
Lost in the myriad of strange details in this game is the contribution of Willson Contreras. He grounded out weakly in the ninth but drove in an essential run, and then his flyout to right center in the twelfth moved Jason Heyward ninety feet and made all the difference. Heyward had doubled, and the productive out from Contreras put him one base away from ending the game.
And with just one out, this was the spot to put the game in the W column. But there was the small problem of Rondon’s spot in the order due up, and the Cubs having used Miguel Montero, David Ross, Javier Baez, and Matt Szczur off of the bench. Under ordinary circumstances, a bat off of the bench could be called upon to hit a bloop single, sacrifice fly, or even a well-placed bunt to do the trick.
But without any bench bats at his disposal, Joe Maddon needed to keep that spot in the order from turning to out number two, and he had just his starting pitchers to do it. Jake Arrieta must have sat there, the obvious choice to many. His .720 OPS in 2016 would have been enough to make him a regular hitter on a lot of teams.
For some reason, however, Maddon told Jon Lester to grab a bat. Below replacement-level reliever or not, Cody Martin was the mountainous obstacle to Lester, and to the game, at that point. Lester, who got his first hit ever in just the previous season, his pants uncharacteristically rolled up to his knees, strode to the plate with Heyward waiting on third. The Cubs prolific baserunner would have been forgiven for openly scratching his head, and Martin for scoffing and pointing.
Lester laid off of Martin’s first offering, a slow curve in the dirt, and then took a called strike on an 85 mile per hour fastball. Martin usually throws his four-seamer closer to 90, but he could be forgiven for laying off a bit against Lester’s .051 batting average at the time.
The third pitch from Martin was a pitchout—Heyward lingering so close to ending the game never too far from his mind. He then threw a cutter—his third most used pitch—and Lester fouled it off for strike two.
Martin decided to try again with the slow curve, a pitch that usually generates a whiff rate of nearly 15 percent, but this time Lester stuck out his bat and…bunted. “I blacked out for a minute. There was no thinking at all,” Lester would say afterward.
The result was good though:
Martin could only marvel at the skill at which Lester had laid down the squeeze bunt. “It’s about as good as you can execute the squeeze. He did a good job of getting it down and completely deadened it. It was a lot longer run than we wanted to the ball. If he hits it any harder, we most likely get that play.”
Obviously thinking he’d strike Lester out with the curve, the Mariners pitcher was understandably stupefied afterward. “I thought he might take it, seeing the big hump in the pitch, but he didn’t.”
Instead he, and the Mariners, were put down by a member of the Cubs who was otherwise the least likely to pull it off. Small, pitiful, and twiggy—with the bat, at least—Jon Lester added a bit to his epic that night.
Lead photo courtesy of Jon Durr—USA Today Sports