By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) I’m wrong as much as I’m right. Maybe more so.
I kind of predicted the Chicago Bears’ crazy two-point conversion play against the Minnesota Vikings, but I also assumed the Bears would lose in Baltimore on Sunday. I guessed prior to the National League Division Series that the Cubs would beat the Washington Nationals in five games, and I resigned myself to the Cubs losing that fifth game somewhere in the middle innings when psychosis set in. I felt that Carl Edwards Jr. would have a dominant appearance out of the Cubs’ bullpen on Sunday, while I didn’t have a gut issue at the time with manager Joe Maddon bringing in John Lackey instead of closer Wade Davis to face Justin Turner with the game on the line.
My feelings on the Lackey matter changed, though, after Maddon explained his justification.
“I really just needed (Davis) for the save,” Maddon said. “We needed him for the save tonight. He had limited pitches. It was one inning only. In these circumstances, you don’t get him up and then don’t get him in. So if we had copped the lead, he would’ve pitched. That’s it.”
But that’s not it. Saving a closer for a point you never reach makes for bad reasoning. The notion of a closer belonging only in situations with a lead is becoming increasingly antiquated, and baseball has already dragged a manager infamously for a similar decision only a year ago in wild-card loser Buck Showalter of the Orioles.
“You can make a strong, strong case to pitch your best reliever in a non-save situation,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said this summer. “I’m moving toward that.”
“People start depending on their role. But to not be able to employ your reliever in a big spot, where it could make the difference in a game…”
My lack of discomfort with using Lackey lay in figuring that Maddon assumed the Cubs weren’t winning that game in the 10th inning and needed someone who could go multiple innings. (Though bringing Lackey in to start the inning might make more sense then.) If I were able to accurately read Maddon’s mind at the time, I’d have felt differently. You have to get to extra innings to play for extra innings, of course. Maddon is very much worthy of criticism for that and more.
The bullpen has been the focal point of the Cubs’ postseason, and that’s understandable with the spottiness culminating in that Game 5 in Washington that became some task out of an Indiana Jones film. But the bullpen has overshadowed something more typical of this Cubs team going on multiple years now — the tendency to wander in run deserts.
In the two games of the NL Championship so far, the Cubs have two run-scoring hits, both home runs. They have scored more than three runs in just one of seven postseason games this year. When that happens, the bullpen becomes a factor. Bullpens are fickle beasts, and when relievers get outs and don’t give up runs, a manager — who isn’t throwing the pitches — is a genius. He’s an idiot otherwise.
One’s potential idiocy doesn’t come into play, though, if a manager is can rely on the conventional (see: flawed) logic of starter-setup man-closer. This means that his team is leading late in the game. The Cubs bullpen giving up four runs in Game 4 of the NLDS doesn’t matter when the Cubs bats scored zero runs. Blowing the lead in Game 2 of the NLDS stinks, but so does relying on solo and two-run home runs in a postseason that demands manufacturing runs, too. The same applies to both games of this NLCS that the Cubs find themselves down 2-0 in.
“We have to do better than one run,” Maddon said after Sunday’s loss. “We’ve just got to do better than that. Offensively, we kind of have been stifled. We are fortunate to be in the position we are in right now based on the number of runs we’ve scored over the last week.”
Which is true. The Nationals are still scratching their heads over how they lost a series to those bats. (Hint: it’s because their bats were also bad overall.)
The Cubs’ two-through-five hitters are 3-for-29 with an OPS of .368 in the NLCS so far. That’s gross. A manager can’t be expected to win a series like that regardless of bullpen decisions and bullpen performances.
“Everybody in the lineup feels if you don’t produce, you have let the team down,” said Kris Bryant, he of the 5-of-28 click and no homers this postseason. “That just really isn’t the case. Not one person makes or breaks the team. It is not what you do in the playoffs. It is what the team does. Obviously, we haven’t been getting it done so far in this series.”
Those words could be applied to Lackey being bested by Justin Turner, who bests a lot of pitchers and might have also bested Wade Davis in that same situation. Or they could be applied to Edwards, who Maddon went to Sunday night — against the wishes of many Cubs fans — to preserve a tie game and dominated for more than an inning. Maddon was a genius again for a minute.
“What the team has done,” as Bryant brought up, is find itself in another run drought that it tends to do before gorging itself on a streak. The problem is there isn’t a guaranteed next week in which to binge.
Score runs, and nothing else matters. I’m pretty sure I’ll be right more than wrong in that case.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.