Maddon and Cubs Redefine Weird Baseball in Unorthodox Win
Is there anything worse than seeing a really good team play down to its opponent’s level? No, there isn’t. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing the Cubs stumble and fumble their way to minimal runs in a hitter’s park against a bad team. It’s even more taxing on the soul than having to tell your son to quit kicking dirt approximately 17 times during a single Little League practice. Baseball’s weird and anything can happen on any given day, a truism that was proven more than once on Wednesday night.
As the game wore on, gloom like the firework fog that settles over Miller Park or the cobalt cancer clouds that used to envelop boxing rings, breakfast restaurants, and the backs of airplanes had begun to shadow the collective Schleprock of many Cubs fans. Is that rational? No, but fandom is pretty irrational by its very nature. No matter how measured you are, though, you have to admit that waiting until the 9th inning to score against the Brewers is pretty maddening.
Or is it Maddoning?
That’s what was on display throughout the game, as the wily manager pulled out all the stops to pull a victory out of his tattered tophat like some kind of street magician. It may have had a bad case of mange and was probably in the early stages of rabies, but the dirty furball the Cubs extricated from the late innings in Milwaukee may as well have been the Easter Bunny.
While it’s hard to judge the veracity of such beliefs, I think most of us can agree that certain odd bounces or unexpected events seem to portend victory. There are times when you just know that the Fates are working to ensure your team’s success or failure, whether that be a fortuitous bounce or an incredible play. For most of 9 innings Wednesday, the Cubs did not appear to have such good favor. Then things got weird.
Trailing 0-1 in the top of the 9th, Anthony Rizzo took a Jeremy Jeffress curveball to the leg and made his way to first. Rizzo’s willingness to take one for the team is incredible. Dude is more than happy to crowd the plate and he’s not about to get out of the way and give a guy a chance to make up for his mistakes. The pitch that hit him came in at only 82 mph, so Rizzo could have gotten out of the way. He didn’t, and it altered the course of the game.
Maddon had made a questionable decision back in the 2nd, when he had Addison Russell attempt to lay down a bunt with men on first and second and only one out. H made another when he brought Javier Baez in to pinch run for Rizzo following the HBP. Listen, I get that you’ve got to play for the tie and let the details sort themselves out later, but the move seemed to provide only incrementally greater odds of scoring. It also meant that Tim Federowicz had to hit in a pinch later in the inning, thus burning yet another position player.
Compounding the second-guessing was the fact that Rizzo would have been able to score just as easily as Baez, who advanced to second on a Ben Zobrist single, then to third on a Tommy La Stella ground out, then home on an Addison Russell ground out. The Cubs had tied the game, but were now without their regular first baseman, a guy who just happens to be one of their best hitters. All’s well that ends well though.
Pedro Strop breezed through the bottom of the 9th and the Cubs threatened by putting two men on with one out in the 10th, but fizzled and moved on. Strop cocked his hat a little more to the left, repped out a few extra hammer curls and dumbbell bench presses (seriously, have you see the man’s upper body?), and headed back out for another frame. All that lifting may have tired him out (Don Zimmer was right!) because he looked a little shaky early. Even so, he was able to strike out Ramon Flores to push the game into the 11th inning.
Hector Rondon looked great in his first inning of work, but it was the fateful 12th most will remember. Not for Rondon’s exploits though. No, this would eventually become The Travis Wood Game. Burly first baseman Chris Carter reached on a La Stella error to open the 12th and Rondon walked Kirk Nieuwenhuis before giving way to the Arkansan lefty. Wood immediately proceeded to load the bases by walking Domingo Santana.
The game, for all intents and purposes (that’s right, people, it’s not “intensive purposes”), was over at this point.
Remember earlier when I talked about Little League? I have coached my son for the past few years and we’re still at the level where the kids don’t really have defined positions. They all just shift around the infield each inning to get a feel for the game. I had written last season that this Cubs team felt like a group of kids in that they can play all over the place and seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s company. And with Maddon at the helm, they’re willing to buck many of the traditional standards of big-league baseball.
The sandlot gimmickry was in full effect in the bottom of the 12th inning, when Maddon pulled off something I’ve never seen before. Well, let’s just say I’ve never seen it work. The Cubs had painted themselves into a corner, so the skipper felt the need to get crazy and go with a five-man infield. Kris Bryant came in from left to play third base, swapping gloves as he did so. The rest of the infield then shifted over accordingly.
Wood got Hernan Perez in an 0-2 hole and it looked as though enough of the paint around them had dried to allow the Cubs to take at least a small step out of the corner. Then Perez lifted a pitch to center and breathes were held in anticipation of a play at the plate. But since the Brewers had elected to leave their first baseman in the game after he reached, Carter was not sent home on a tag-up. More weirdness ensued.
With Aaron Hill batting, Maddon had Bryant and Baez (who was playing first in place of Rizzo) switch postitions. They also had to exchange gloves since Bryant’s first baseman’s mitt isn’t quite broken in. Hill popped out to Russell to further deflate the threat and send Bryant back out to left, giving Baez his glove back as he went. With the bases still loaded, Martin Maldonado worked a full count before popping out to Baez behind the mound to end the inning.
Those plays that portend good things? The bottom of the 12th was full of ’em. Oh, and Travis Wood wasn’t done yet.
With two men on and two out, the Brewers elected to walk Miggy Montero in order to face Wood to try and get out of the inning. He’s a pretty good hitter for a pitcher, but he’s still a pitcher. And a reliever at that, so he’s not getting many at-bats these days. Actually, he didn’t even have an at-bat Thursday morning. That’s because he walked on five pitches to force in the eventual game-winning run. Wood took a home run cut at the first pitch he saw and then stood patiently as Carlos Torres failed to find the plate again. It was a thing of beauty.
Not content to let fans calm their nerves and get to bed peacefully, Wood proceeded to give up a leadoff double to Jonathan Villar before making a nifty play on a Scooter Gennett come-backer to record the first out and keep the runner at second. Wood then gave way to Neil Ramirez, a forgotten man of late, to face the dangerous Jonathan Lucroy. A wild pitch allowed Villar to scoot to third and Ramirez walked Lucroy to put Jonathans at the corners with only one out. Sub-optimal is what they call that.
Ramirez K’ed Carter and came out for Clayton Richard, who converted his first career save by getting Nieuwenhuis to ground out to Ben Zobrist. Game over, for real this time.
The Cubs had no business winning that game. They were supposed to have dropped two straight to the Brewers and made people question their will and their ability to beat bad teams (coming into the game, their winning percentage against sub-.500 teams (.714) was better than against those with winning records (.750)). It was almost over in the normally allotted time, then it was almost over in extras. But it wasn’t over. Then Cubs wouldn’t let it be.
Perhaps this game will be lost among the other 119 the Cubs put together this season, just another notch on the season’s bedpost. But maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember this one for a little while. If, that is, you even remember it this morning.