There's a temptation, whenever a team is facing the prospect of its season ending in bitter playoff defeat, to expect decisive action and bold strokes. Some glass must be broken; this is an emergency.
For baseball men of a certain age, though, there is often a pull toward conservatism every bit as strong as the push of urgency. For most of Game 5, that gravity held Joe Maddon relatively still, from a tactical standpoint. He filled out more or less the lineup that brung ‘im, including Jason Heyward in right field and Javier Baez at second base, even after four games of largely floundering offense left the team on the brink of elimination.
He stuck with Jon Lester (and David Ross) much deeper into the game than one might have expected, under the circumstances. And he never found a moment at which to use Kyle Schwarber. Yet, ultimately, he made his most desperate managerial move since joining the Cubs, and it paid off, helping the club change the venue of the World Series one more time.
Firstly, let's consider Maddon’s lineup, and Terry Francona’s, for that matter. Maddon kept his typical top four in the batting order, but with Ross set to catch Lester and a right-handed opposing starter with whom to deal, the manager elected to slide Addison Russell back up to the fifth spot, followed by Heyward and Baez. That was the defense-first lineup option, without question, and it would pay off throughout the game.
Francona, meanwhile, chose to start Carlos Santana in left field for the second time in the three games played under NL rules in Chicago. With Rajai Davis and Brandon Guyer rounding out his outfield, Francona had the offensive matchups he wanted against a left-handed starter and, presumably, he planned to do just what he'd done behind Josh Tomlin in Game 3–make it as far as the middle innings, hold a lead or a tie, and get Santana off the field to shore up the defense.
And he almost made it that far. Cleveland did score first, on a Jose Ramirez home run in the second inning, and held that edge until Kris Bryant hit an answering shot to lead off the bottom of the fourth. Anthony Rizzo followed that blast with a double hit nearly as hard, high off the wall in straightaway right field. The rest of that inning was an interesting exchange of missed opportunities to act proactively, by both skippers.
Francona had chances to get Trevor Bauer out of the game and quell the Cubs’ rally. Andrew Miller (inexplicably) pitched two innings in a blowout win Saturday night, so he wasn't as obviously available as he might otherwise have been, but he'd been up and doing preliminary drills immediately prior to the fourth frame. Dan Otero has thrown fewer than 90 pitches this month. Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen were on the docket for later in the game. Bauer has been brutal during the postseason and in fact has struggled almost without interruption since early July.
If Francona had been intent on truly knocking out the staggered Cubs, the move was to lift Bauer at the first sign of trouble. Alas, he left him in to face the next six batters, after the Rizzo double. It could have hurt much worse than it did. Ben Zobrist singled. Addison Russell chopped a ground ball to third for an RBI infield single. That brought up Heyward, and sent the strategic impetus scampering toward the third-base dugout. With two on and nobody out in a 2-1 game, that plate appearance had a Leverage Index of 1.76. That's almost exactly the threshold at which it's 50/50 as to a game ever getting that tense.
Maddon had his entire bench–Miguel Montero, Willson Contreras, Chris Coghlan, Albert Almora, and *Kyle Schwarber*–available to him at that moment, and a chance to break the game open. He allowed Heyward to bat, though, and got the natural consequence: a strikeout. That Baez then laid down a gorgeous bunt single to load the bases seemed, momentarily, like the universe giving Maddon a second chance. Ross was due, in a spot with a 2.30 Leverage Index, meaning there was a roughly even chance that this game would present no more clear an opportunity to tilt the balance.
By then, just about everyone sensed that it was time for Schwarber to pinch-hit, and to make the kind of impact for which the Cubs hoped after they found out their semi-injured slugger would be stuck on the bench during these three games. Maddon, however, made no move. Bauer and the Indians got out of the inning trailing just 3-1, their hopes of winning the series on foreign soil still viable.
Lester grinded his way into the sixth inning, not allowing that lead to budge. In the top of the sixth, though, he found trouble, in the form of the third trip through the Indians’ batting order. He never ought to have been in that trouble. With a two-run lead, in the sixth inning of a game that could have ended the Cubs’ season, Maddon ought to have had someone else on the mound against Davis, Kipnis, et al. Instead, Lester slogged through that sequence, giving up a single, a stolen base, and another (run-scoring) single. The Indians had taken advantage of Maddon’s inaction, and were now just one run behind with a runner on first base.
That's when Francona made the choice that, arguably, got Maddon off the hook, saved Lester from a painful playoff collapse, and set up the rest of the game: he ordered a second stolen base attempt, within the inning, and a third of the series for Francisco Lindor against Lester. Running on Lester is one of the most talked-about niche strategies in baseball today. His mental block about throwing to bases is well documented, and the potential benefits for a team facing him have been heavily discussed. The only problem with all that discussion is that when it comes time to translate that hypothetical advantage into a real one, many teams are unable to do so.
Lindor took off on a 1-1 Lester pitch, and despite his good lead, he was swallowed up by the combination of a quick time to the plate, a great throw by Ross, and a quick sliding tag by Baez. The inning (and Lester’s outing) was over, and the Cubs still held a slim edge. As it turned out, the Indians had just missed their last great chance to tie things up or take the lead. On came Carl Edwards Jr. to face Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana in the seventh, and when Maddon lifted Edwards (with eight outs left to get), it was in favor of Aroldis Chapman.
The Leverage Index when Maddon made that final change of the night: 2.45. It was a screamingly high-leverage spot, thanks in no small part to Edwards having allowed a single and a wild pitch to put the tying run in scoring position with one out. There's little question it was a good time to call upon one’s flame-throwing closer. It's fair to wonder, though, whether it was a good time to call upon this flame-throwing closer. Chapman isn't Andrew Miller. He had never proved himself able to get that many outs in a single game before and, in fact, had demonstrated in everything from numbers to body language to quotes to reporters that he wasn't comfortable pitching multiple innings, or coming in with runners on base.
Two bad experiences shortly after the Cubs dealt for Chapman cowed Maddon during the summer, such that he hadn't asked Chapman to pitch in situations like the one he encountered Sunday night–hadn't prepared him for such a moment. Still, Chapman rose to the occasion. He would dominate over the prolonged remaining innings, fanning four of the 10 batters he faced and putting only two runners on base. It took him 42 pitches, a season-high and two shy of his career-high, but he sliced through the Indians and ensured the series would be extended.
In the final few innings, there were buttons pressed. Dexter Fowler stole a base in the bottom of the seventh, trying to create an insurance run. In response, with first base open and two outs, Francona ordered an intentional walk to Anthony Rizzo, giving Ben Zobrist a chance to completely blow the thing open. It was a gaffe, and it nearly went sour, but Zobrist swung away on a 3-0 pitch and flew out to end the threat. Then Heyward singled and stole two bases in the eighth, the second of which (a steal of third with two outs, and Chapman allowed to bat for himself) was a fascinating gambit.
Maddon had chosen to keep Chapman in the game, trading the chance of a run to cushion the team against a Cleveland comeback for the presumably minute chance of such a comeback against Chapman. Having Heyward try that steal put pressure on the Indians, since a bad throw (or a subsequent wild pitch) would have led to a free run. Almost nothing would have been lost, too, if Heyward had been caught, since Chapman’s chances of scoring Heyward with a hit were virtually zero.
Maddon waited far too long to lift his starting pitcher, missed his chances to use Schwarber in a pinch-hitting role, and put a reliever in a situation with which he has expressed and demonstrated discomfort. Still, he won the battle of wits in Game 5, by being willing to ask a big thing from a pitcher with big talent, and by staying the course. Francona got to rest his best reliever, so he’ll have more arrows in his quiver Tuesday night. The fact that Tuesday night will see baseball at all, though, is a testament to Maddon’s team out-smarting and out-playing Francona’s.