Joe Maddon’s the smartest man in Major League Baseball.
Just ask him.
Better yet, let’s revisit all of his many smart moves that contributed so much toward the climactic ninth inning of the Cubs’ 6-5 … uh, loss to the Pirates on this even-beyond-that magical Wednesday night at PNC Park.
First, clinging to a one-run lead entering the ninth for an immensely struggling team — now losers of four in a row, with near-daily Theo Epstein threats of a shakeup — Maddon handed the ball to Craig Kimbrel, a renowned closer but one who’s still trying to get comfortable after sitting out half the season as a free agent. Since Epstein ponied up $43 million over three years to get him last month, Kimbrel’s been rocked in all three appearances.
Eh, there’s a reason he was acquired. Even with Kimbrel walking Elias Diaz after one out, this one’s minor.
The rest weren’t.
Willson Contreras, the Cubs’ superb catcher, started in right field for the first time in the majors. And his bullet throw home in the eighth cut down Melky Cabrera and what would have been a tying run. But that doesn’t mean Contreras needed to be out there in the ninth.
That’s how Jung Ho Kang’s popup toward the right field line turned into a Texas League double inside the chalk:
Additionally, look at how far the Cubs’ coaches had Contreras shaded toward right-center for Kang. Because a shift was going to matter more in that situation than the catcher having to cover addition ground.
Even so, Contreras did get there and didn’t catch it. The ball clanged off the thumb of a glove he wasn’t used to wearing.
Where was Jason Heyward, maybe the National League’s best defender at the position?
According to Maddon after the game, neither Heyward nor his likely backup, the versatile Kris Bryant, were available because of mishaps here in the long game Tuesday night. I was told by a source in the Chicago organization after the game that Heyward, specifically, was “banged-up.”
We’ll see how serious it was, but one inning in a pinch probably wouldn’t have set a “banged-up” Heyward and/or Bryant back.
It gets way worse.
Runners are at second and third. One out. Adam Frazier comes up. As Josh Bell would observe later, “He’d been barreling everything,” and that was understatement for a guy off to a 10-for-13 July. Plus, he’s a lefty getting to face the righty Kimbrel.
Maybe put him on or pitch around him?
Nope. Maddon explained that he feared Corey Dickerson and Starling Marte, the next two in line, as much as Frazier and, moreover, that he didn’t want Kimbrel to feel forced to throw strikes with bases loaded.
Fair enough, but how about pulling the infield up to take away the easy tying run?
Nope to that, too:
Good Lord, what was that?
With a meeting on the mound, infielders included, Maddon instructed the infield to remain at regular depth and play for the out at first unless the ball were stung. He was willing to concede the tie, he’d say, because he had ample bullpen depth at hand.
“We were playing for the out,” Maddon said. “We threw the ball to the plate, and that messed things up a little bit.”
No. Just no. Stop right there for a second. I’ll restate this with gusto: The Cubs really, really needed a W. They were holding that W. And with a bazillion-dollar closer on the mound, they concede extra innings?
Then why have him out there at all?
Further, to blame the second baseman, Addison Russell, is … well, A-OK by me considering Russell is eminently deserving of endless bad things in his life. Plus, Russell himself admitted that his hesitation in the throw and his positioning didn’t help.
“I was just a little bit too far back, and I had to move to my left,” Russell said. “It had to be a perfect play. I don’t regret my decision going home, but that play has to be perfect to be made, especially with me ranging to my left.”
Whatever. The Cubs are now 10-22 when Russell plays since his not-long-enough 40-game suspension for domestic violence ended. If that’s their latest curse, so be it.
Kimbrel stayed, of course, to face Dickerson, another right-vs.-left matchup. And Dickerson, owner of probably the best hand-eye on the Pirates’ roster, simply choked up and sliced Kimbrel’s final fastball deep enough to left to plate Kang:
“I loved the effort,” Maddon would say. “We just didn’t get it done in the end.”
Neither did he.
• Repeat after me: Chris Archer lasted only five innings and gave up most of his damage via home runs.
Victor Caratini in the second …
… and Javy Baez in the fifth:
Sorry, but those are putrid pitches. Watch Jacob Stallings‘ mitt, then track the arrival.
Call it an almost-quality start, per the semi-official stat — five innings, three runs, five hits, eight Ks three walks — but I’ll continue to call it not nearly enough. It’s laughable that a big-league starter hasn’t made it past the fifth inning in 10 of his 15 starts, and it’s beyond laughable that he’s now conceded 20 home runs and, within those, he’s been charged with 31 of his 48 total runs.
Archer doesn’t need to be measured against a miserably lopsided trade to look bad. He just needs be measured against an average major-league starter. And that might be the biggest disappointment of all.
• Let’s hear it for Hurdle giving Archer an earful upon returning to the dugout following the fifth, as captured above by our Matt Sunday. One can safely presume it was for Archer petulantly throwing at Anthony Rizzo after Baez’s home run.
Now Baez did stand and admire a moment, just as he’d hilariously do later for what resultantly wound up a single off the top of the center field fence. Say what one will about Baez — or, for that matter, Rizzo, who hasn’t exactly endeared himself around here with his filthy slides — but Archer’s act was selfish. He made his teammates targets the rest of the game and, with how long baseball memories last, probably beyond.
Maybe Archer should find a primary pitch that isn’t the gopher ball.
• Not much that Bell does surprises anymore, but left-handed oppo on his home run to the bleachers?
“Sick, right?” he’d reply when I raised that. “I was looking for a pitch outside, it came over, and I just went with it.”
Everything he touches these days …
• Jameson Taillon’s playing catch here this afternoon. It would be a gigantic deal if that’s a smooth session. Imagine, with all else that’s going on, getting him back.
• Happy Fourth to one and all!
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY