By Shane Nicholson
So the Cubs came home after earning a split in Cleveland. Home to the Friendly Confines™ of Wrigley Field, where they posted a 57-24 record this season, the best in baseball.
And they were left scrapping a 3-2 win in Game 5 simply to keep this World Series alive. Thankfully, for the sake of Joe Maddon‘s pinch hitting decisions, the return to an American League park will eliminate one of the biggest variables in this series. Here we move to break down one of the most key and telling sequences of the series thus far: Javy Baez’s bunt single with two on and one out in the fourth.
The Cubs had finally gotten to Trevor Bauer, whose steady diet of breaking balls had thus far silenced their lineup. Kris Bryant lined a 1-1 fastball into the leftfield bleachers. Anthony Rizzo got caught ball watching after he rapped a first-pitch fastball off the rightfield wall but still ended up with a double (Respect 90, anyone?). Ben Zobrist sent a 3-0 fastball into rightfield to plate Rizzo. Addison Russell, having just missed on the 0-1 fastball, rolled over on a 1-2 curveball that died in no man’s land between third and the mound.
That’s four batters up, four batters on, two runs across and Cleveland’s starter on the ropes. So what happened next? A horrible waste of a chance to bury Game 5.
Jason Heyward – who, sure, is taking some better swings the past few games than we’ve seen all season – expanded the strike zone on three of the four fastballs Bauer dealt him, resigning to chasing a 59-foot curveball for out number one. Enter Baez.
Baez has faced a steady stream of first pitch fastballs for strikes in this series, none of which he has swung at. He has subsequently faced a barrage of absolute garbage that you wouldn’t be remiss in identifying as a pitch out upon first look. On a quick glance, Baez swung at zero pitches in the strike zone over the three games at Wrigley. That’s not great.
So with one out and with David Ross on-deck (and pitcher Jon Lester behind him) – by the way, Ross, owner of a .200 average this postseason, has been worse than Baez despite the latter’s disappearing act in the World Series – Baez laid down a bunt on a 0-1 curveball. It caught everyone in the park off guard and drew a slew of praise from analysts across all media, both oddly for the same reasons: it was the completely wrong thing to do.
Let’s cross over the next two outs quick and get back to the real problem: Ross provided a run on a sac fly to left; Lester struck out.
From no outs, two on, two across to three outs, two on, three across in the flash of a terrible at-bat; an awful bunt; and Ross and Lester doing what they could.
The Cubs big secret weapon is the fact that, throughout the season, they’ve been able to shift players around seemingly at will. Have glove, will travel. And yet here, with the wayward Heyward, the hopeless Baez and the fun story but really not that good Ross (who is an automatic double play on a ground ball) up in the key spots that could have seen this game done and dusted well before Ardolis Chapman was asked to record an eight-out save, Kyle Schwarber sat on the bench. He sat there the whole of the game, in fact.
With three outfield options on the bench, Maddon chose to let Heyward go down fanning instead of turning to Schwarber. With three outfield options on the bench that would have allowed Zobrist to move to second, Maddon chose to let Baez hit, who wasted another crucial plate appearance on a bunt that, under a number of different outcomes, could have negated Ross’s sacrifice. And, of course, he let Ross hit because Lester can’t throw a sphere to anyone else in the universe.
Schwarber, through three consecutive high-leverage at-bats in a must-win game, sat on the bench. The Cubs were lucky to escape.
You’ll hear another six hours of breakdowns over the next three days on how to use your best pitchers in those same spots; ideally, your best batters are the ones facing the pitchers in those spots. Schwarber was not locked in a spot in the lineup with Maddon unable to take advantage of his bat in a crucial situation; he was locked to the bench as three batters and a pitcher conspired to produce a bunt single and a single run.
It won’t be “easier” for the Cubs to win in Cleveland than it would’ve been to grab another game at home, despite what some may say. Every team prefers playing at home for all the same reasons: the routine is simplified, the thoughtless tasks remain thoughtless.
What will make it easier is the decisions surrounding when to use Schwarber, because that decision will be taken out of Maddon’s hands once he fills the lineup card. For Cubs fans, that can alleviate one of the great fears of these (hopefully) next two games: Maddon may be the better man manager in a head-to-head with Terry Francona, but he most certainly is not the better in-game boss.
Removing this variable and tossing in back-to-back starts by Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks in the attempt to win this championship just may be enough to wipe away the missed chances. And given that those chances didn’t bite the Cubs in Game 5, some might almost feel lucky at the prospect.
Game 6 of the World Series is Tuesday night, 7:08 p.m. from Progressive Field in Cleveland.