CLEVELAND – No development in the sixth game of the World Series was more stunning than when the bottom of the ninth inning began, and the scoreboard showed that the Chicago Cubs had a seven-run lead, and Aroldis Chapman — who had already hurled pitches to hitters in the seventh and eighth — took the mound anyway.
“You go with your best,” Cleveland Indians closer Cody Allen said.
That has long been a developing theory in baseball that has now fully taken hold: At the biggest spots, make sure you rely on your best players.
This, though, wasn’t the biggest spot. Whether it impacts Wednesday night’s Game 7 or not, we may never know. What we do know: Cubs Manager Joe Maddon was asked about this strategy Tuesday night, and he had to explain himself — twice.
“For me, the game could have been lost right there, and he’s by far our most dynamic relief pitcher,” Maddon said. “I talked to him before the game once again. He was aware of the scenario. So he went out there and he was outstanding again.”
But will he have the ability to be outstanding again Wednesday? Cast that question, too, against the Indians’ situation, because their best bullpen arms – which are basically some of the best bullpen arms in the game – are completely rested. Andrew Miller hasn’t pitched since Saturday’s Game 4. Bryan Shaw and Allen haven’t pitched since Sunday’s Game 5.
Let’s consider the circumstances in which Chapman was used, the circumstances he could face in Game 7, and where the Indians stand.
In the seventh inning of a game the Cubs led 7-2 Tuesday, Maddon was going with veteran lefty Mike Montgomery, who had relieved starter Jake Arrieta and recorded the final out of the sixth. Montgomery allowed a one-out walk, and with two outs Jason Kipnis singled. Right-handed-hitting Francisco Lindor was the next batter.
“I thought the game could have been lost right there if we did not take care of it properly,” Maddon said.
So he went with Chapman.
We live now in a world in which analytics say, basically, to use your best players in the biggest situations. Chapman is, as Maddon said, the Cubs’ best reliever. He got Lindor to hit a bouncer to first, and – unlike Sunday night in Game 5 – Chapman covered the bag. Replay overturned an initial safe call to out, and even though Chapman slightly rolled his ankle, all seemed right for the Cubs. The logical thought: Allow Pedro Strop or Hector Rondon to pitch the eighth, saving Chapman for Wednesday’s Game 7.
And yet here came Chapman for the eighth, to face cleanup man Mike Napoli, third baseman Jose Ramirez and, eventually, pinch hitter Yan Gomes.
“Listen, I’ve been at this ballpark when we were up by seven or nine and they came back,” Maddon said. “Cleveland has this tendency and this tradition, so I don’t want that to happen.”
Maddon had spoken to Chapman before the game about his potential usage, just as he had spoken to Chapman before Sunday’s Game 5 in Chicago when Chapman got the final eight outs and extended the Cubs’ season. The idea: You could be used as early as the seventh.
“If we garner enough runs, then I’ll take you out of the backside,” Maddon said he told Chapman.
Chapman worked around a one-out single in the eighth and got Gomes to bounce into an inning-ending double play. He had thrown, at that point, just 15 pitches. But what, exactly, was “garnering enough runs” for the Cubs? In the top of the ninth, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo launched a two-out, two-run homer to right. Suddenly, a five-run lead became a seven-run laugher.
And Chapman still took the mound for the ninth?
“Just did not have enough time to get Stroppy warmed up after the two-run home run by Rizzo,” Maddon said.
That might be the case, but it did seem to take a while for the Cubs’ bullpen to stir after Rizzo extended the lead. And so Chapman took the mound to start the ninth.
Forget the pitch count for a moment. Chapman warmed up in the bullpen. He warmed up on the mound in the seventh, faced a batter, cooled down, warmed up to start the eighth, cooled down, then warmed up to start the ninth again. Yes, he walked the first man he faced, Brandon Guyer, on five pitches.
Finally, Maddon came to get Chapman. He had thrown 20 pitches. In his career, he had thrown that many or more 100 times. The impact here, though, was surely greater. Rarely had he warmed up three separate times to throw them.
What evidence might there be that Chapman tires when he throws back-to-back nights with a lot of pitches? Not a ton. This year, he followed an outing of at least 20 pitches with an appearance the following day five times. Only once did he allow a run, and in 3-2/3 innings he gave up just two hits and two walks.
Still, in a weird way, the Indians worked themselves into an advantage, even in a blowout loss.
“We’ve talked about this even before we started, was to make them use pitching even in a loss,” Cleveland Manager Terry Francona said. “So we hung around enough, at least Chapman had to pitch. You never know. Maybe that helps us.”
What the Indians absolutely know will help them: Miller, Shaw and Allen did not have to pitch. Each of them will have at least two days’ rest. How important are they? Combined, they have a 0.95 ERA this postseason.
“Those are the guys you’re going to go to,” Napoli said. “All hands on deck tomorrow.”
The hands that are on deck have various states of fatigue. That might not matter in an adrenaline-fused, winner-take-all Game 7.
But if the Cubs’ drought – curse, hex, whatever you want to call it – continues, might there be some wondering in Wrigleyville as to whether the closer should have pitched in Game 6 when the Cubs were up seven runs?