Of all the people at Wrigley Field calling Miguel Montero out for a curtain call after his pinch-hit grand slam Saturday night in the Cubs’ 8-4 victory over the Dodgers, the loudest should have been his manager, Joe Maddon.
Montero’s 402-foot home run into right field off Dodgers reliever Joe Blanton did more than just give the Cubs a 1-0 lead in the National League Championship Series; it bailed out Maddon for a rare move that backfired. The biggie from “Miggy” saved the Cubs from losing a game that, until Maddon prematurely pulled starter Jon Lester after six innings, looked like an easy win. And it spared Chicago from spilling angst into the streets that started to build as soon as Maddon pinch-hit for Lester with the toughest nine outs to go.
As Lester walked slowly from the on-deck circle back to the dugout in the sixth inning, his deliberate body language screamed exactly what everyone was thinking.
What are you thinking, Joe Maddon?
The Cubs led 3-1 at the time, but Maddon decided to send Jorge Soler to hit for Lester, ending the night for the Cubs ace who deserved a chance to go deeper. Who deserved at least a chance to start the seventh inning. Instead, Maddon pulled Lester after only 77 pitches, six innings, four hits and one run – a wind-aided home run in the left-field basket by Andre Ethier. Lester wasn’t as sharp as usual, but he didn’t appear to be laboring either. If you think it was hard to see the Cubs unravel two innings later when the Dodgers tied the score, imagine how Lester must have felt watching helplessly.
“I just thought tonight Jon really wasn’t at the top of his game,” Maddon said. “He didn’t have his best stuff.”
Maddon has earned the benefit of the doubt based on the percentage of his hunches that pay off but this one looked bad the second he called on Soler. This one appeared to be a guy who preaches doing simple better inexplicably complicating everything. This one smacked of overmanaging.
“Would I have liked to have gone out in the seventh? Absolutely,” Lester said.
The seventh inning went smoothly as three Cubs pitchers kept the Dodgers from scoring, but Maddon’s move backfired in another unforgettable eighth inning in Cubs playoff lore. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Maddon called on closer Aroldis Chapman. The last time Maddon inserted Chapman to attempt a six-out save – in Game 3 against the Giants – it didn’t go well and neither did this experience. After two straight strikeouts, Chapman gave up a two-run, game-tying single to Adrian Gonzalez that stunned the crowd.
“The vibe on the field was good even after they tied it,” Maddon insisted.
But a Dodgers team that had hung around now had been rejuvenated, allowed back in the game by a managerial move by the opponent. Ironically, a move in the bottom half of the eighth by Maddon’s counterpart, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, set up Montero’s heroics.
Roberts wanted to force Maddon to pinch-hit for Chapman so, with the pitcher due up next, the Dodgers walked Chris Coghlan to load the bases with score tied at 3-3. Essentially, Roberts chose to face Montero rather than Coghlan and had the numbers to support the decision: Montero was 2-for-11 lifetime against Blanton while Coghlan a robust 8-for-17. Still, Roberts probably regretted the choice as a restless Saturday night turned into Sunday morning. Montero left no doubt, ripping Blanton’s pitch into the seats and assuring everybody that his back was just fine. He had just carried the Cubs to victory, after all.
“As a kid, you always dream of this situation,” Montero said. “That’s what you live for. … This one is more special in front of a special crowd. You want to see how it feels. It’s a great sensation.”
Montero didn’t go to the plate dreaming of being sensational. All he wanted was a single.
“I was just thinking of getting a base hit,” Montero said. “I was looking for a good pitch to hit and I hit it pretty well.”
Indeed, Montero hit it well enough to make the Dodgers wonder if they will get another shot this good to beat the Cubs. Forget the standings in the NL West. The Dodgers aren’t the Giants and don’t have that championship pedigree. Game 2 starter Clayton Kershaw cannot pitch every game any more than Madison Bumgarner could in the NLDS – and the Dodgers really don’t have the equivalent of Johnny Cueto as a No. 2 starter. Sorry, Rich Hill, the Dodgers simply lack starting pitching depth. Kenta Maeda, Saturday’s starter, won 16 games but hardly pitched like a 16-game winner.
As for the Cubs, despite needing a pinch-hit grand slam to survive their first NLCS victory since 2003, they proved more than anything that defense wins championships in baseball too. The grass stains covering the front of Dexter Fowler’s jersey suggested how busy he was saving runs with diving catches in the outfield. Anthony Rizzo got into the act, too, with a diving stop of Yasiel Puig’s grounder.
The Dodgers helped the Cubs cause with some poor judgment in the second inning. Maeda stroked an unlikely single off Lester and third-base coach Chris Woodward waved home Gonzalez rounding third. Slower than LA traffic, Gonzalez was thrown out by three steps.
It started to look as if the Dodgers wouldn’t even let the Cubs make a mistake. Javier Baez got caught cheating too far down the third-base line after a failed Lester bunt try, but catcher Carlos Ruiz’s pickoff attempt caused third baseman Justin Turner to lunge and Baez beat the throw home. Baez would lead the league in instincts if they measured such categories. He took off at just the right time. Not since 1907 had a Cubs player stolen home in a playoff game. Perhaps not since 1908 has a Cubs team looked this complete and worthy of a championship.
Regarding all that history, Maddon made everyone realize why his allergy to anxiety gives him the ideal temperament to lead the Cubs through this morass of distractions.
“Today is what, Oct. 15?” Maddon answered before the game when asked about the Cubs’ historical burden. “I really want to believe our guys are going to treat it like July 15 or Aug. 15. I know I am. … When you start looking at it from the wrong perspective, it could interfere with what you’re trying to do.”
Maddon keeps saying the right things. It will reassure Cubs fans if Sunday he resumes doing them too.