- Matthew Stockman/Getty
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon has been known to make seemingly strange decisions that pay off in big ways, but his unorthodox style backfired during Sunday night’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Through eight innings of Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, the two sides were locked in a 1-1 tie. The Cubs failed to muster a hit against Kenley Jansen in the top of the ninth, and after lefty Brian Duensing allowed a man to reach scoring position in the bottom of the inning, Maddon called on 38-year-old starter John Lackey to make his second relief appearance in as many nights.
The rest will go down in MLB history. Lackey walked Chris Taylor, then surrendered a towering home run to third baseman Justin Turner to hand the Dodgers the game. Turner, who’s hitting .429 this postseason, got a 92 mph fastball down the middle and gave it a ride, putting his team up 2-0 in the series.
Take a look at the game-winning blast:
— MLB (@MLB) October 16, 2017
The home run was a moment of glory for Turner, but on the other side, Maddon faced heavy scrutiny for his decision to bring Lackey into a crucial situation. The veteran was mediocre during the regular season, pitching 170 innings with a 4.59 ERA, and with three others, including shutdown closer Wade Davis, remaining in the bullpen, the walk-off appeared to be a preventable mistake.
Maddon defended his decision after the game, saying that Davis was only available to pitch one inning and that the plan was to use him in a potential save situation.
“Wade had limited pitches,” Maddon said, according to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune. “We needed him to save the game … I was just betting on [Lackey’s] experience more than anything.”
While that explanation makes a certain amount of sense, it flies in the face of today’s prevailing views on bullpen management. Managers have begun to use their top relievers in the highest-leverage situations, and there’s no higher leverage than a tie game in the bottom of the ninth. Having Davis available to save the game would have been a luxury, but these days, most managers would take the clearest path to the end of the inning and cross their fingers on offense, hoping the game ends before having to turn to their weaker arms.
We’ve seen baseball’s disagreements over bullpen management play out in a number of ways over the past year. Orioles manager Buck Showalter famously kept superstar closer Zach Britton out of last year’s American League Wild Card Game, allowing Ubaldo Jimenez to give up a three-run homer in the bottom of the 11th. Fans were livid, and perhaps as a response, we saw less rigidity in relief roles this season. MLB teams recorded just 1,179 saves in 2017, their lowest total since 2000.
Showalter’s decision was widely criticized on Twitter, and it wouldn’t have been fair if the site’s users, including many prominent baseball writers, decided to treat Maddon any different.
Can we now dispense with the "Joe Maddon: super genius" thing?
— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) October 16, 2017
I used to think Joe Maddon was one of the best tactical managers in baseball.
I used to.
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) October 16, 2017
Wow, can't believe Joe Maddon is going to Ubaldo Jimenez instead of Zach Britton here
— Sam Miller (@SamMillerBB) October 16, 2017
Maddon and the Cubs must now win four out of six games to advance to the World Series, a goal that is still well within their reach. But no matter the outcome, expect to see a lot less of Lackey over the next week.
Game 3 of the series is set for Tuesday at 9:01 p.m. ET.