Sometimes, a universe turns on a single moment, and sometimes that moment doesn’t matter. Two such moments of interest from last night’s game, which the Indians ended up winning 1-0.
With one out in the fifth inning, Kyle Hendricks' last pitch of the evening clipped Jason Kipnis, sending the burly second baseman to first and loading the bases for Cleveland in a 0-0 game. At that point, Joe Maddon had seen enough, and the decision to pull Hendricks was fairly straightforward. Hendricks had pitched effectively enough for the previous four innings, but had leaned too heavily on an inconsistent strike zone (as called by John Hirschbeck) and left a pitch or two higher in the zone than you’d like on a night when the wind was whipping out of Wrigley Field to left.
And so, Hendricks’ night was done, after just 4 â…“ innings. So far, so easy. But who to bring in? After an off day, and with Francisco Lindor—the hottest hitter on either team—at the plate, the Cubs had a litany of options at their disposal. Aroldis Chapman was available. Pedro Strop was available. Hector Rondon was available. Heck, even Carl Edwards Jr. was available, and Travis Wood and Mike Montgomery. But Maddon went with Justin Grimm, the fourth or fifth guy in the Cubs’ pen.
Grimm wasn’t a bad choice, to be clear—he generates ground balls at about a 40 percent clip, and strikes batters out only a quarter less often—but, with the game on the line, he sure as hell wasn’t the first name to come to mind. Process says, in a moment like that, you bring in your top reliever, inning be damned. But, you know, who gives a heck about process. Grimm, prior to last night, had thrown to 38 batters with the bases loaded. He had not generated a single double play. On his sixth pitch to Lindor, after getting ahead 0-2 early and then falling back to a full count with three straight balls, he finally got the twin killing he’d been looking for, and the Cubs left the inning with a seven percent better chance to win than they’d had at the outset.
“For me, it was just feel it up and attack,” Grimm told me after the game of his approach to Lindor. “And then try to get him to chase. He worked me hard near the end of that at-bat, but I was able to execute the last pitch in the way I wanted to get the out.”
Whatever Grimm was up to, it worked. I’m still not sure he was the right call in that spot—had I been in Maddon’s shoes, I’d probably have flinched, and burned Chapman early—but the outcome came through. “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” said Einstein, famously, but he probably hadn’t watched very many baseball games.
The same cannot be said of Terry Francona, who figured heavily in the second interesting strategic moment of the game. In the bottom half of the same inning, Francona found himself confronted with a Cubs runner (Jorge Soler) on second, two outs, and the pitcher’s spot coming up for Chicago against starter Josh Tomlin. Andrew Miller, the hero of Cleveland’s postseason, was warming in the ‘pen, and Kyle Schwarber—He Who Has Not Been Medically Cleared—was looming in the back of everybody’s mind.
Schwarber, surely, would have been enough to draw Miller into the game early, and most expect that to be exactly what would happen. It didn’t. Maddon sent his other lefty catcher—Miguel Montero—into the on-deck circle, and that threat, relatively light though it was, was apparently enough for Francona to yank Tomlin and bring in Miller. Once again, the first move—removing the starter—was almost certainly the right call, just as it was when Maddon pulled Hendricks earlier in the frame.
But where you could make a reasonable if not wholly convincing argument for Grimm as the starter's replacement in the top of the inning, I’m not sure the case for Miller, in that particular situation, was quite as strong. I mean, sure, here’s how the case for Miller goes, in general: He’s really good. He’s good in the first inning, he’s good in the second, he’s good in the fifth … he’s good, really, whenever you put him into the game. He’s never really a bad choice, and putting him in when he did allowed Francona to neutralize the top of the Cubs’ order in the sixth.
But Miller’s brilliance can tempt managers into a false sense of infallibility. Because putting him in is always defensible, managers are free to put him in before his time without much fear of consequence. With two outs in the inning and just the lone runner on second, I’m not sure the fifth inning was Miller time. Surely one of Cleveland’s other relievers could have gotten that out? And when Francona pinch-hit for Miller just an inning later, he entered the final third of the game without a safety net.
It turned out not to matter, anyway. The Cubs were chasing pitches out of the zone the entire night and never really seemed to get in the game offensively. Kris Bryant, in particular, had a bad night, missing badly on a few sequences, and time and time again Cubs hitters just straight up failed to make clean contact on balls fouled straight back or popped up. In a 1-0 game, you can look a lot of different places for the strategic move that mattered—and, I think, if you want to talk about strategy, the middle innings of this game, discussed above, are where you want to focus—but who gives a crap about strategy when you can’t execute?
The Cubs couldn’t execute last night, and that, more than Andrew Miller, Justin Grimm, Kyle Hendricks, and Josh Tomblin, put them in a 2-1 series hole.
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