The Cubs won the World Series a little over four months ago, and the questions about Joe Maddon’s pitching moves in Game 7 started at the same time, if not a little bit before. And they continue. While Paul Sullivan’s article in the February 27 Chicago Tribune, "Cubs fans managing forgiveness" (in the words of the headline writer), mentions Game 6, most of the fans’ comments were on Game 7, especially pulling Kyle Hendricks in the fifth inning of Game 7. In yesterday’s Tribune, Paul Sullivan talks about Kyle Hendricks having fans tell him all winter that he was pulled too early from Game 7.1 I know how these fans feel – because I used to feel that way, too. But looking back on it, I realize the decisions Joe Maddon made in Game 7 were the right ones to make at the time he made them.
Most importantly, though, I have realized that, in explaining his moves in Game 7, Joe Maddon has shown why he is the great manager he is. Because in explaining why he took Kyle Hendricks out in the fifth inning, all Joe has done (at least as far as I seen) is talk generalities. How could you not bring Jon Lester in? He’s Jon Lester. Etc., etc. (See, for example, here.)
Given all that happened in Game 7, and the way the Cubs finally won it, it is hard to remember everything that happened in the game. But you have to look back at the whole game to understand Joe’s pitching decisions. Because, ultimately, it was what happened in the third inning that was the pivot on which the rest of the game, or at least Joe Maddon’s pitching decisions, turned.
But let’s start at the beginning of the game. Javy Baez played such lights-out defense during the postseason, you might not remember his error with two outs in the bottom of the first. Kyle Hendricks got the next batter on just two more pitches, though, so it was no big deal.
The third inning, however, was different. The Cubs had taken a 1 to 0 lead on Dexter Fowler’s home run leading off the game. But in the bottom of the third, the Indians came back. Coco Crisp led off with a double and Roberto Perez sacrificed him to third. When Carlos Santana singled, the game was tied.
Was Kyle Hendricks starting to lose it? He didn’t do that well in the second. He only faced three batters, but two of them got hits. He got out of the inning by picking one man off first base and getting another to hit into a double play.
So when two of the first three batters in the third got hits and the Indians tied the score, Joe probably started to wonder. Were the Indians squaring up on Kyle? Was Kyle losing his stuff? Then the key play happened. Jason Kipnis hit a ground ball to Addison Russell. Russell tossed it to Baez at second, but instead turning a double play, Javy dropped the ball. Both runners were safe. Instead of the inning being over, the Indians had runners on first and second with one out.
At that point, Maddon didn’t have a choice. He had to have Jon Lester start warming up.2 If Kyle Hendricks didn’t have it (or if the Indians were hitting him even if he did), Lester needed to get ready. This wasn’t some game in July. This was Game 7 of the World Series. You don’t leave your starter in too long – especially if you have Jon Lester in the bullpen.
In the March 2017 issue of Vine Line, there is a long article on Mike Montgomery.3 Montgomery says he warmed up four times in Game 7. Jon Lester couldn’t do that. He’s not a reliever; he’s a starter. He warms up and then he pitches. He can’t warm up, sit down, and then warm up again two innings later. Once Lester started warming up, he had to come in – or not pitch at all. Which wasn't going to happen. Because there is no way you aren’t going to use Jon Lester in Game 7 of the World Series if he is available. After Hendricks got out of the third inning and had an easy fourth – and the Cubs scored two runs in the fourth and two more in the fifth, Maddon was probably hoping he could hold Lester until the sixth, but that was all he was going to be able to do.
When Hendricks walked Santana in the fifth with two outs, Maddon had a choice. He had wanted to bring Lester in at the beginning of an inning, with nobody on base. But after Santana walked, Maddon could either bring Lester in with a runner on first and two out or hope Hendricks could get Jason Kipnis out so that Lester could start the sixth, with nobody on base. But what if Hendricks couldn’t get Kipnis out? Then Lester would have to come in with two runners on base. Maddon decided it made more sense to bring Lester in with one runner on base than to risk having to bring him in with two runners on. I can’t disagree.
Obviously, bringing Lester in at that point did not work out as Maddon planned. But that wasn’t Maddon's fault - or Lester’s. David Ross threw the ball away on Kipnis’s dribbler in front of the plate, to put runners on second and third. Then Ross couldn’t block Lester’s wild pitch – letting two runners score on the same play. (Two runners scoring on a wild pitch is something that is supposed to happen in “Major League,” not the major leagues.)4
Once Lester entered the game in the fifth, was it realistic to expect to him to last until the ninth? No. So, in the bottom of the eighth, when Jose Ramirez singled with two outs, Maddon was in the same spot he was in in the fifth. Aroldis Chapman likes to come in at the start of an inning. But this was Game 7 of the World Series. Was it better to bring Chapman in with one runner on base or risk Lester giving up another hit and having Chapman come in with two runners on? It’s hard to fault Maddon’s decision to bring Chapman in at that point.
But Aroldis Chapman had pitched 1-1/3 innings, and thrown 20 pitches, the night before. Why didn't Maddon try somebody else first? Who? Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop were both out with injuries in August/September. It wasn’t clear either one of them was on top of his game in the postseason. Travis Wood or Justin Grimm? This was Game 7 of the World Series. In Game 7, you go with your best. You go with who brought you. Once again, things did not turn out as Maddon planned. But if there was any fault on Maddon's part, it was in Game 65, not Game 7.
At the beginning of this post, I said that Javy Baez’s error in the third inning was the pivot around which the rest of the game turned. Consider what might have happened if Baez had turned that double play in the third inning. Hendricks might have pitched six innings (Hendricks only threw 63 pitches in 4-2/3 innings – and that included the extra out he had to get in the first). Lester could have started the seventh inning with nobody on base. If Lester went three innings, it would be, “game over drive home safely.” If a reliever had to come in, it probably would not have been until the ninth. In other words, a totally different game.
But it didn’t matter. Maddon’s pitching changes may not have turned out as he intended, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t the right decisions when he made them. And fortunately, it all worked out. The Cubs got enough runs, and the Indians’ pitchers and batters were human, too.6
1 Kyle’s responses to the fans was great: “Hey, we won, right? That’s all that matters.” And: “I really just tell them I was expecting it to be a short start going into it, which I was.”
2 I want to thank our son Ross for the pointer to the fact Jon Lester started to warm up after Javy Baez’s error in the third.
3 Understandably. He got the last out.
4 I know David Ross hit a home run in his last game ever, but he gave up two runs before that. Which was not the fault of Maddon’s pitching change.
5 The real question is why Maddon brought Chapman in in the seventh inning of Game 6 with the Cubs having a 7 to 2 lead. Shouldn’t he have used somebody else first, especially since Chapman faced ten batters and threw 42 pitches in an eight-out save in Game 5? After all, the Cubs had a 96% chance of winning Game 6 at that point. Why use Chapman? Three comments. First, for Maddon’s explanation, see here. Second, I understand the Cubs had a 96% chance of winning Game 6. On the other hand, going into the top of the ninth inning in game 4 of the NLDS, the Giants had a 97% chance of winning the game. So Bruce Bochy took Matt Morris out, even though Morris had retired the nine Cubs in a row. Morris had thrown 120 pitches. With a 97% chance of winning, Bochy figured it was time for the Giants bullpen to do their job. They didn’t.
Third, it’s not just that, if the Cubs hadn’t won Game 6, there wouldn’t have been a Game 7. Even after Cubs won Game 6, they still couldn’t be sure Aroldis Chapman was going to be relevant in Game 7. When the Kansas City Royals came back from being down three games to one in the 1985 World Series, the Royals won seventh game 11 to 0. The only other time the Cubs have been in a seventh game in the World Series, in 1945, the Tigers got five runs in the top of the first, and the game was effectively over before the Cubs got to bat.
Actually, a fourth comment. Maddon’s confidence-in-only-Aroldis-Chapman moves in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series remind me a lot of Jim Riggleman in the playoff game against the Giants in 1998. We won that one, too.
6 For a really scary article about how close the Indians came to winning Game 7, see David Cameron (not the former British prime minister), “The Inning the Cubs Stole,” at FanGraphs. For David Cameron’s thoughts on Maddon’s use of Aroldis Chapman in Game 6, see here.