Cubs manager Joe Maddon only made one truly impactful move in the larger story of the series in Game 6. With a 7-2 lead and two on with two outs in the seventh inning—a fairly low-leverage spot, likely to produce even lower leverage eighth and ninth innings—Aroldis Chapman entered the game. Maddon likely could’ve made it all the way through using his medium-leverage pitchers like Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop, Travis Wood, and Hector Rondon, and of course saving Chapman at that exact moment hardly precluded asking him to pitch later if a higher-leverage situation arose.
Furthermore, asking Chapman for everything left in the gas tank in Game 6 obviously hurts your chances in Game 7, and could’ve even left a lesser pitcher (or a gassed Chapman) in a higher-leverage situation in later innings of Game 6. There is a somewhat persuasive counter-argument: you have to get to Game 7. Even if Cleveland’s chances to come back and win Game 6 with more conventional bullpen management were low as of Chapman’s entry–Fangraphs’ live win probability estimated them at 3.1 percent–that low chance definitively ends the Cubs' season if it hits.
It also would’ve kept rising exponentially with each additional baserunner. There’s no backsies here if Cleveland rallies. I would’ve preferred Maddon at least wait until the tying run got to the plate to use Chapman, but we should recognize that Chapman’s not a human cheat code that definitely gets you out of the game in that scenario. In a far more puzzling move, Chapman remained in the game to start the bottom of the ninth inning after the Cubs extended the lead to 9-2.
As Tom Tango noted on Twitter, Cleveland’s chances at that point were reduced to around a one-in-a-thousand shot, certainly enough to let it ride on other relievers. In a postgame interview Maddon attributed this to a failure to get another reliever warmed up quickly enough, which is a bad error on his part, and he ultimately lifted Chapman at 20 pitches after a leadoff walk. Strop and Wood finished the game without creating too much additional agita.
Maddon did have a more obvious positive impact, as the Cubs shook up their batting order for Game 6. He slid designated hitter Kyle Schwarber, who only got one plate appearance in the three National League rules games in Chicago, into the two-hole. That pushed Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist all down a slot from their usual placements. All of them mashed the ball, so this was a well-executed change, and I’d expect to see the same kind of lineup in Game 7.
If there was a slightly curious positioning in the lineup, it was that the Cubs hit the apparently powerless Jason Heyward eighth and free-swinging slugger Javier Baez ninth. Typically you’d want those reversed in an American League lineup, with Heyward fitting better in the “second leadoff hitter” role, but the rest of the lineup hit so well that nothing Heyward or Baez did mattered.
Josh Tomlin, like the entirety of Cleveland’s non-Corey Kluber starting staff this postseason, had a justifiably short hook in Game 6. Cleveland manager Terry Francona had action behind Tomlin as early as the first inning. The second and third runs scored against Tomlin were technically “earned,” which is a failure of how we classify these things, as Tomlin induced a weak pop fly to right-center that should’ve gotten him out of the first inning at 1-0. It’s hard to criticize Francona much for staying with Tomlin through that.
Where you might be able to quibble with the length of Francona’s hook is in the third inning. Tomlin issued a tough leadoff walk to Kyle Schwarber, then got Kris Bryant to pop to right. Anthony Rizzo then lined a single. Francona let Tomlin, who by this point really didn’t seem to have much, pitch to Ben Zobrist. For most of the playoffs, Francona has lifted his starters a hitter too early instead of a hitter too late, but here Zobrist singled. This was probably a batter late.
Francona went to righty Dan Otero with the bases loaded following Zobrist’s single, looking for a double play. Otero is roughly fourth on Francona’s relief pecking order after the vaunted Andrew Miller/Cody Allen duo and reliable setup man Bryan Shaw. In 2016, the sinkerballer was one of the groundball-heaviest pitchers in the majors, and allowed only two home runs on his way to a 1.53 ERA and 3.06 DRA in the regular season.
Otero was certainly the right choice for Francona to bring into the game over a long reliever like Ryan Merritt or Mike Clevinger, and Francona should be praised for using one of his legitimate short relievers that early to try to get out of a key jam. That Otero gave up a backbreaking grand slam to Addison Russell was, from a managerial perspective, the kind of bad outcome with good process that Cleveland has avoided for the past month.
Francona turned the game over to Danny Salazar in the fourth, and Salazar delivered two scoreless innings. Salazar missed most of September and the first two rounds of the playoffs with forearm and elbow issues, and was dreadful when he did pitch in the second half of the regular season. But if healthy, Salazar is clearly Cleveland’s second-best starter after Kluber, and placing him on the World Series roster would indicate some level of confidence in his health, which all raises an interesting question: should Salazar have started this game over Tomlin to begin with? In an ideal world Tomlin would’ve provided length Salazar couldn’t, and Tomlin had pitched well coming in, but out-for-out Salazar might’ve been a better choice.
Jake Arrieta, as the reigning Cy Young winner, deserves a far longer hook than Tomlin does. With the benefit of a seven-run cushion, Maddon let Arrieta work out of a jam in the bottom of the fourth, allowing one run and stranding the bases loaded by striking out Naquin. Had Naquin reached, Maddon might’ve been faced with some tough decisions. A Jason Kipnis solo homer in the fifth followed, but overall Arrieta pitched well while dodging trouble, ultimately being lifted after a walk with two outs in the sixth at 102 pitches.
Maddon opted to use southpaw Mike Montgomery behind Arrieta, and Montgomery got out of the sixth before allowing the baserunners in the seventh that caused Maddon to go to Chapman. Montgomery was as good a choice as anyone else to relieve Arrieta.
After Salazar, Francona emptied Cleveland’s bullpen of more low-leverage relievers that under no plausible circumstances will be pitching in a close Game 7: Jeff Manship, Zach McAllister, and Clevinger. Outside of disaster striking, it’s honestly hard to see nine-inning scenarios in which anyone but Kluber, Miller, Allen, and Shaw pitches in Game 7, given that all three of those relievers should be ready and able to go multiple innings if necessary.
That’s been Cleveland’s formula for success so far, and with Chapman being leaned on so hard over the past three days, Francona starts Game 7 in the managerial driver’s seat. Whether he can stay there might determine which team ends their drought and raises the greatest baseball flag of them all.
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