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Joe Maddon is on such a roll it's starting to get creepy.
Heading into the bottom of the seventh in Sunday's 4-3, 13-inning victory that gave the Cubs a four-game sweep of the Nationals, the manager looked ahead and knew he wanted pitcher Trevor Cahill to pitch at least a third inning in relief (he had already tossed two shutout innings after Jake Arrieta went five) in the eighth.
Maddon had also already used up most of his bench and wanted to save his last potential pinch-hitter, Javy Baez, for later in the game - even though the Cubs trailed 3-1 at that point. So he had Cahill hit, figuring he would sacrifice an out to preserve a little bit of his bullpen and one final option off the bench.
So what does Cahill do? He bashes a completely unlikely base hit. And even that was extra fortunate, what with the line drive deflecting off pitcher Oliver Perez's glove and back to shortstop Danny Espinosa, who underestimated how much time he had (Cahill is not exactly a speedster) and tried to rush a slick bare-handed play. He bobbled it.
Next up was Dexter Fowler and he was hit by a pitch, giving the Cubs men on first and second with no outs. Perfect time for a sacrifice bunt, right? Except the next hitter, Jason Heyward, had laid down all of one successful sacrifice in his career (over 3,500 plate appearances). The ensuing bunt was perfect.
Up next was Kris Bryant, whose career spray chart caused the Nationals to play him as an extreme pull hitter, with the second baseman just to the right of second base as one looks out at the infield. Bryant hit a laser beam through the gaping hole on the right side for a base hit. The game was tied.
We now return to our central question: Why was Maddon so determined to have Cahill pitch a third inning? It wasn't as though the bullpen was truly taxed in any way, although you knew he didn't want to use his top two: Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, or Neil Ramirez, due to their work loads in the first three games of the series.
It was as if he had a feeling the game might go long and he might need not just Cahill to chip in a little extra. And then it went 13 innings. Like I said, creepy.
Cahill, Adam Warren and Justin Grimm all ended up tossing multiple innings of shutout relief. Travis Wood only pitched the 13th but he was in perfect position to go long (four or more innings) if need be. And the great thing about Wood being in there was that had the game made it to, say, the 15th and the Cubs had found themselves in another position where they didn't want to pinch-hit for the pitcher, well, Wood is their best hitting pitcher.
And finally they still had Clatyon Richard in reserve. He'll be primed and pumped for tonight if they need a long reliever against the Padres.
The other most notable element of Sunday's game was Maddon's absolute refusal to get beat by Bryce Harper. And that resulted in some history, as Harper became only the third player ever to record six walks in a game and the first to reach base seven times in a game without getting a hit.
Here is where Madden's determined use of analytics (at least most of the time) paid off. After walking Harper worked to limit if not eliminate the damage (in terms of Nationals runs scored) for a third, fourth and fifth time in a single game, part of Maddon's brain must have been screaming that at some point just putting the Nationals star on base would backfire. But the Cubs manager was able to analyze the situations separately. When Harper came to the plate a sixth time, the specifics of the inning called for another walk, which was given. And that was the case again when Harper's seventh at-bat rolled around. And sure enough, the strategy paid off again, and again.
Now history beckons. At 24-6 the Cubs have had one of the all-time great starts to a major league baseball season. Of course they can win 10 more in a row and still not match the Tigers' 35-5 start in 1984. But still, pushing for every win they can add to the current seven-game win streak makes sense if for no other reason than to keep moving up the list of great starts through 30 games, then 31, and so on.
And just think, there are only 132 more games to go until the postseason!
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