CHICAGO — On the back of every ticket to a Major League Baseball game, if you look at the fine print, it says, “The bearer of this ticket is permitted to second-guess either or both of the managers. If he or she does not exercise this prerogative, the commissioner reserves the right to refuse permission to attend any future major league games.”
Or it seems like that, anyway.
Certainly, Game 3 of the National League Division Series, won, 2-1, by the Chicago Cubs over the Washington Nationals, was a kind of paradise for second-guessing. In fact, some might say the final score was: Decisions that blew up on Dusty Baker (2) over Decision that blew up on Joe Maddon (1).
That doesn’t mean their decisions were wrong in their logic, though all will be debated. But the results redefined this series: The Nats must now win Game 4 on Tuesday with Tanner Roark on the mound, then hope they can get back home to Washington for a Game 5 on Thursday with Stephen Strasburg pitching.
The decisive moment that will make the replays will be Anthony Rizzo’s RBI single into short left field off reliever Oliver Perez that broke a 1-1 tie in the eighth. It will simply be one of those hideously painful Bermuda Triangle dying quails, gorks or bloops that land among three players — charging outfielders Michael A. Taylor and Jayson Werth and retreating shortstop Trea Turner.
But because of his reaction to his hit, Rizzo made sure that this game will be remembered for strategy, managing and baseball’s mysteriously cruel way of making 45/55 decisions seem like moral flaws or proof of stupidity.
As the ball fell, the go-ahead run scored and Rizzo was caught on camera, apparently screaming, “Respect me! You respect me!” Baseball translation: I’m a star. You should walk me to pitch to a mortal. And this is my vengeance — my magnificent . . . well . . . blooper.
Asked whether he’d heard Rizzo yelling, Baker said, “Nah, I don’t care. I’d have screamed, too.”
This whole game illustrated one of baseball’s most invigorating qualities — debates over strategy that are perhaps more sophisticated, but definitely more in full view, than in any other sport. It also showed one of the sport’s most infuriating aspects. Within one postseason game, the tiniest things, almost accidents, can prove decisive with huge implications.
Every run that reached the scoreboard was the direct result of a strategy that didn’t work. Yet the Cubs made two fabulous running catches in right-center field to rob the Nats of three certain runs. Jason Heyward, the best right fielder of his time, stole a two-run double from Anthony Rendon while center fielder Jon Jay made an even more dazzling catch to thieve an RBI double from Matt Wieters.
“They made great plays. And [Rizzo’s] ball found a perfect spot,” said Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, knowing that a crosswind had helped the Cubs make both of those grabs. Then in the flattest possible voice, Zimmerman said, “What a game.”
This game is why managers can’t sleep at night. And it’s why fans, some of them anyway, will argue all winter.
In the sixth, score still 0-0, Maddon relieved his starter, left-hander Jose Quintana, after 96 pitches with a man on third and two outs. Playing percentages, he brought in right-hander Pedro Strop to face Zimmerman. Result: Zimmerman murdered an entire family of ivy leaves that were innocently minding their own business living on the right field wall. Nats lead 1-0.
Soon, it was Baker’s turn. In the seventh inning with one out, Ben Zobrist broke up what had been a marvelous, downright gallant no-hit bid by Max Scherzer, who had spent the last nine days wondering whether the next time he pitched full-bore he might blow out his tight right hamstring and be done for the year. Before this game, Scherzer said he figured he would be good for maybe 100 pitches. He was at 98.
“I had all the adrenaline I needed,” Scherzer said. “We were all kind of 50/50. [We kind of] looked at Wieters. Sometimes your catcher can kind of be the deciding factor of how everything’s coming out. They kind of looked at it and thought that [left-hander] Sammy Solis was the best option for us.”
Using Solis would force the Cubs to pinch-hit for Kyle Schwarber, who batted only .171 against lefties this year while striking out — if expressed as a “strikeout average” — at .415.
“I know you guys are probably going to second-guess that,” Scherzer said. “But these guys are here to make a decision.”
Baker called for Solis. The Cubs countered with the dangerous Albert Almora Jr., who hit .342 against southpaws this year. Almora singled home the tying run on a change-up that stayed — up.
Finally, in the brutal eighth, in a decision and a moment that may be the most painful of the Nationals’ season if they do not rebound from this deficit, Baker decided not to intentionally walk Rizzo, the Cubs’ top RBI man — by miles — and instead bring in lefty specialist Perez to cope with him. It was a journeyman-with-a-specialty against a superstar.
Baker had options. He could have walked Rizzo and let Brandon Kintzler, an all-star closer this year for the Minnesota Twins, pitch to Cubs cleanup man Willson Contreras, who is powerful but strikeout prone. He could even have (perhaps) overmanaged and brought in his best pure-stuff right-hander, Ryan Madson, to face Contreras to try to overpower him.
Instead, Baker believed in Perez. And, since this is baseball, Perez won the battle but lost the game. Perez jammed Rizzo, forcing that weak, sickly blooper into left field. That, anyway, is how it was described by several Nats, including Baker. To the Cubs, it was a perfectly placed clutch hit.
For the record, as they say, with perfect hindsight, I think that the Nats may have managed as if the playoffs were different from the regular season — which is a current vogue. If this game had been played in August, I suspect there would have been little complexity.
And better options might have been chosen — ones that did not end up with the Nats losing a huge game in which neither of their two best relievers, Madson or Sean Doolittle, ever appeared.
If this had been August, after Scherzer’s no-hitter was broken up, Kintzler would have been brought in to face Schwarber for the simple reason that, in NatsLand, the seventh inning belonged to Kintzler as soon as he got to town.
In August, the Nats would simply have given the eighth inning to Madson, and if they’d still had that 1-0 lead in the ninth, handed the ball to Doolittle.
Could that all have worked out so simply? Kintzler in the seventh, Madson in the eighth and Doolittle in the ninth to put the Nats one win from the National League Championship Series? For what it’s worth, not one Nat, and I asked several, had any problem with any Baker move. One veteran said, “We are a solid team — in every area. It’s not like we have a couple of good relievers and nobody else we trust. Our bullpen is good all the way through now. Nobody’s second-guessing those decisions.”
But, right on the back of our tickets, it says we’re allowed to ask.
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