CHICAGO -- In the recent history of postseason managerial boneheadedness, there are two decisions that leap out as particularly doltish. The first was Cardinals manager Mike Matheny's to-this-day inexplicable decision to bring in Michael Wacha -- who had not pitched in nearly a month -- into a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning of an elimination game during the 2014 NLCS, a decision that resulted in the Giants hitting a walk-off homer to advance to a World Series they would ultimately win. That one was so dumb that there really wasn't much of a lesson to be learned from it: No manager -- other than perhaps Matheny himself -- needed to be told not to repeat that mistake.
But the second might end up being one of the most influential managerial gaffes of the past 20 years, and it just happened a little more than three weeks ago. In the American League Wild Card Game between Baltimore and Toronto, Orioles manager Buck Showalter let 11 innings go by -- the last six of which involved a tie game -- without using Zach Britton, his ace reliever who had such a dominant season that he'll receive AL Cy Young Award votes despite pitching only 67 innings all season. The move was so universally derided -- and surely looked upon with horror by the stathead front offices of every team in baseball, including the Orioles -- that you can be certain there wasn't a manager in October that didn't get a memo from upstairs the very next morning: Don't be like Buck.
(That Showalter, one of the more innovative and analytic-friendly managers in the game, is the one tagged thusly is unfair, but hey, that's October baseball.)
Henceforth, this postseason we've seen Andrew Miller deployed as early as the fifth inning, the Kenley Jansen cruise missile fired in the seventh and an overall revolution in the way relievers are used. This has affected every team except, ironically, the Chicago Cubs, who not only have one of the more analytically advanced and intelligent front offices in the game but also have the nightmare weapon that is Aroldis Chapman (who was even once going to be a starter). Joe Maddon may have once managed the innovative Rays, but he made it clear just last week that using Chapman like Miller was not his bag.
"Not everybody is cut from the same cloth mentally, or has the ability to get loose and prepare," he said. "[Miller] is more suited to be able to be this guy that can get up in the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth and warm up in a manner that gets him in the game both mentally and physically. Whereas Aroldis, if he wanted to do that, I think that would have had to be done from Spring Training. He'd have to differentiate his mindset."
But, as it turns out, if anyone switched up his mindset … it was Maddon. With the whole season on the line in Game 5 of the World Series Sunday night at Wrigley Field, Maddon, at last, floored it, bringing in Chapman in the seventh inning of a one-run game against Cleveland, with a runner in scoring position. It wasn't just a move that Maddon said he wouldn't make, it was also asking Chapman to get more outs than he had at any other time in his career. It was what you do when you are desperate. It was asking Chapman to change his cloth. Even Terry Francona, afterward, called it "a big ask." But Maddon had the fear of Buck in him.
And it worked. Chapman got out of the jam in the seventh, overcame his own brain freeze in the eighth when he forgot to cover first base on a Rajai Davis ground ball and shut Cleveland down in order in the ninth, an inning he came into with 30 pitches. No problem there: He struck out Jose Ramirez to end the game on his 42nd pitch -- a 101 miles-per-hour fastball. And the Cubs, with a teeth-chattering 3-2 win, had their first World Series win at Wrigley in 71 years and a trip back to Cleveland for a Game 6 on Tuesday.
It remains a bit awkward to have Chapman as a savior considering the past 11 months in the world of Aroldis Chapman, but Cubs fans, like so many other fans of any other team in any other sport have had to do, have understandably already wrestled with that moral quandary.
The Cubs are just happy to have some more baseball, and why wouldn't they be? It would have been quite the bummer to have the Cubbies' big World Series breakthrough end with three Wrigley Field losses. Now this series returns to Cleveland, and, all told, Cubs fans have to sort of like their chances. They have the pitching advantage in Game 6 with Jake Arrieta against a short-rest Josh Tomlin, and if they can win that game, heck, who knows what happens in a Game 7 -- it's a Game 7! Every game is obviously a must-win when you are facing elimination. But now the Cubs, the best team in baseball and the one that had been on its heels all weekend, has spark again. The Cubs can win two games in a row, easy. Of course they can.
But they had to win this one first, and that required Maddon, who has apparently lost total trust in Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, giving the ball to Chapman and staying out of his way. Every time bringing a closer in early works -- and it has worked nearly every time this postseason -- it further calcifies as conventional wisdom. There is an inertia that comes with managing a baseball team, the theoretical "Book," as in "by the," that even the most innovative and daring managers are loathe to resist. But this postseason, in the wake of Buck, it has become increasingly evident that conventional wisdom is to use your stud reliever immediately, at the time of first potential peril. It might not have worked tonight, and in fact, there were many ways it could not have. (It helps when your stud reliever throws 103 mph.) But it did. You could tell Maddon was agonizing about asking Chapman to "differentiate his mindset." But the way this turned out, the way it keeps turning out, I bet he agonizes a lot less next time. I bet every manager does.
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