Staring elimination squarely in the eyes, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon told his players to show up 98 minutes before Game 5 of the World Series. He calls this a “show up and play” day. On Sunday night, when it mattered most, Maddon showed up and managed a counter-intuitive game, walking away with a win and a plane ticket back to Cleveland.
Maddon, never one to manage by the book, made a series of surprising moves in the Cubs’ 3-2 victory. Whether they helped his team win or whether his players won in spite of them is unclear. What is obvious is that Maddon was fearless.
Up 2-1 in the bottom of the fourth, David Ross strode to the plate with the bases loaded. Maddon opted not to go to Kyle Schwarber for the death blow in favor of leaving Jon Lester’s personal catcher in the game. Ross rewarded the decision by driving in a run with a sacrifice fly.
Two innings later, with the score 3-2, he lifted Ross in favor of Miguel Montero in a bases-empty, two-out situation. This foretold the end of Lester’s night after 90 pitches, meaning Maddon would have to build a bridge to closer Aroldis Chapman.
He turned to Carl Edwards, who surrendered a leadoff single to Mike Napoli. A miscommunication with Wilson Contreras, the Cubs third catcher to see action, resulted in a passed ball. Edwards got Carlos Santana to fly out to left field.
Then Maddon made his boldest move of the night by calling on Chapman from the bullpen for an eight-out save. The fireballing lefty had recorded three or fewer outs in eight of his previous 10 postseason appearances. He’d never thrown more than 36 pitches in a game. He’d pitched two-plus innings only three times this year. Asking him to do an Andrew Miller or Cody Allen impression was a tall order.
Forty-two pitches and two Indians run-scoring threats later and it was over. Chapman had done it. Nineteen of those deliveries were 100-plus mph. Maddon lived to manage another day.
With Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks in his back pocket, he has to like his chances to overcome the 3-1 hole. A note on the clubhouse door told departing players that Halloween costumes were encouraged on that plane back to Cleveland.
Great baseball minds can play Monday morning quarterback on his strategy. It may have been brilliant. It may have been insane, but effective. Sometimes the right decision results in a loss and the wrong one works out. What’s most admirable about Maddon is that he had the balls to manage his way in the biggest game of his life.
Had Edwards allowed a game-tying home run or Chapman imploded, all fingers would have pointed to the unconventional decisions. The first-guessers would have doubled down.
The weight of an 108-year World Series drought could pressure lesser managers into playing it safe. Maddon’s shoulders are broad in a city that loves such a quality.