We may be a day removed and washed clean of the funk from the series opener, but some of the decisions from that game are worth revisiting. Every fan who watched the pivotal 6th inning of Monday’s Cubs-Brewers game remembers the agony of Carl Edwards Jr.’s wild pitch and his less-than-urgent cover of home plate, as perfectly captured in Evan Altman’s piece on the play.
But largely overlooked in the grim haze of defeat and a razor-thin division lead were other key decisions Joe Maddon made right before Edwards’ calamitous crescendo. So let’s start this edition of Cubs Rewind by spooling the tape back. It’s a 2-2 tie. Jon Lester started the game with sporadic control in the zone, surrendered two runs, but righted himself in the subsequent innings.
Lester looked good to start the 6th, getting quickly ahead of Ryan Braun 0-2. Braun then socked a hard grounder down the third-base line. Javy Baez made a nice backhand stab and bulleted a throw to Anthony Rizzo to retire Braun. But on the first pitch to the next hitter, Jonathan Schoop, the inning started to come off the rails.
On a 91 mph fastball, the replay shows Lester definitely tweaked his back on the arm side and started favoring it. (below).
Both the Cubs and Brewers TV announcers missed this, but the replay shows Cubs catcher Willson Contreras and Schoop did not. Contreras even started out to the mound, but Lester waved him off before trying to stretch out behind the mound.
Lester’s discomfort could definitely be seen on his face during his next four pitches, though he tried to hide it (above, right). But his sixth pitch to Schoop came sweet and sour; Lester retired the Brewers infielder with a swinging strike on a cutter for the second out but was noticeably favoring his back and walking gingerly around the mound
Contreras waves to the dugout after seeing his pitcher land awkwardly. Lester again tried to wave off any attention, but Maddon and team trainer PJ Mainville came out for an injury visit.
The Cubs TV announcers mistakenly guessed that Lester’s last pitch was the probable culprit, but replays appear to show it happened five pitches earlier. Lester later shared that he felt some discomfort when he got off the bench to start the inning and may have even tweaked it on a swing. In any case, he was at 85 pitches at that point, but talked his way into staying in the game.
This was Maddon’s first key decision of the inning. From a fans’ vantage, only hindsight would make clear Lester needed to come out then. But in-game and at field level, this should have been much more clear to the Cubs bench. Even if the dugout hadn’t noticed when Lester first tweaked his back, even if they paid no heed to his subsequent stretching, Contreras definitely saw it and should have apprised Maddon of it during the mound pow-wow.
Maddon should have known Lester hadn’t been able to pitch his back loose, so his night would have been done at the conclusion of the inning no matter what had happened. Even without the back issue, his pitch count and approaching a fourth time through the Brewers order assured this.
Consequently, Maddon faced a definite choice in that first mound visit. Roll the dice in a 2-2 tie and hope Lester gets the third out, or lift him right there. As part of this choice, Maddon would also be aware that whichever reliever he brought in would get unlimited warm-up time and face a blank slate with no runners on.
Maddon chose to roll the dice and kept Lester in for two more hitters, oddly opted not to get his bullpen started. The next two hitters reached, putting runners on second and third with two outs, and Lester was finally pulled with light-hitting No. 8 hitter Orlando Arcia coming up.
This posed two more decisions of great consequence for Maddon, the most obvious of which was whose name to call in relief. I hesitate in complaining too much about these kinds of choices because “outcome bias” is always in effect here. However, given that Maddon later said he brought Edwards in to “build up his confidence” by challenging him with a simpler one-out situation, one can fairly question this decision.
Yes, if Edwards had retired Arcia for the third out, his confidence would certainly rise. But this situation was quite an extreme and risky one for an exercise in esteem building. Would it not have been more prudent to bring Edwards in two hitters earlier with no runners were on, or to start the next inning?
Of course, we now know how the Edwards decision panned out. He uncorked a wild pitch, Contreras lacked the adroitness to get a glove on the ball, and the ultimate winning run scored without Edwards streaking with proper urgency to cover the plate.
But Maddon also faced one last decision immediately prior to this pitch. Recall that the Brewers had two runners on with two outs and first base open. It’s top of the 6th with the Brewers’ No. 8 hitter coming up and then the pitcher’s spot.
Had Maddon intentionally walked Arcia to load the bases, it would have allowed a third out to be registered by force at any base. Plus it would have forced Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell into the tough choice of whether or not to pinch hit for starter Wade Miley after just five innings in a tie game.
For all these reasons, it’s a textbook intentional walk call. Still not convinced? Consider it this way: If Edwards had retired Arcia and held the tie, Counsell theoretically could have opted to go with Miley for at least an extra inning. There is usually a strategic advantage in getting to the other team’s bullpen in the middle innings. Plus over a whole series, every extra bullpen inning has cumulative ramifications.
As one example, Miley pitching the 6th inning means Brewers reliever Josh Hader probably only pitches one inning Monday. Instead, Hader went two innings, which might make him unavailable Tuesday night or perhaps less effective if he does appear. Plus, six Cubs hitters saw him, which helps each of them if they face him again this series.
For all these reasons, an intentional walk was pretty close to a 100 percent correct tactical move.
As it turned out, Arcia walked after the wild pitch and Counsell still chose to pinch hit for Wiley. This was a two-out gamble on his part. Miley had thrown just 81 pitches and both runs on him scored without a hit. But Counsell was hoping aging veteran Curtis Granderson could manage a clutch two-out hit.
Maddon has faced this same decision many times and usually made the same decision as Counsell by accepting the opportunity to add an insurance run over keeping his starter in for an extra inning. The gamble didn’t work for Counsell, as Edwards struck Granderson out to end the threat. But then the Brewers bullpen proved up to the four-inning challenge of protecting the slim lead, including Hader striking out six Cubs on 24 pitches.
So again, the Edwards wild pitch gets all of the attention. But Maddon in fact faced three key decisions in that pivotal frame: 1.) Sticking with the injured Lester after the first visit; 2.) Deciding what situation to put Edwards in to build up his confidence; and 3.) whether to load the bases by walking Arcia.
Making a different decision with any one of these could have changed the outcome of that inning and the game. While the first two aren’t cut-and-dried, not intentionally walking Arcia ran counter to all textbook tactical decision-making.