How Joe Maddon’s faith in Aroldis Chapman kept the Cubs alive
CHICAGO — “I love counter-intuitive,” Joe Maddon said Sunday afternoon, wearing a stocking cap and a mischievous smile. “I love it, man.”
Here was the convention-toppling Cubs manager, this 62-year-old mystic who is allergic to the ordinary, sipping a hot coffee before Game 5 of the World Series and discussing the rationale behind a defense-first lineup in a moment when his team’s offense was essentially comatose. Maddon had logic-based explanations, mostly revolving around what worked best behind starter Jon Lester. But he also seemed simply giddy at the idea of upending an assumption, for the sake of upending it. It’s why he discussed a 2 a.m. pizza party with his mother and a Pandora station full of Eddie Vedder tunes and a Casey Kasem broadcast from 1979 just hours before the game that could end his team’s season. He would not abandon the sideways creativity that brought his team here. He had to believe it could take the Cubs from this one night to at least one more after it.
Which brings us to the seventh inning of a one-run elimination game in late October, and Joe Maddon asking Aroldis Chapman to do something the flame-throwing closer had never done in his 28-plus years on this planet. The unmistakable pop of Chapman fastballs hitting a bullpen catcher’s glove were one thing. The opening chords of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” rattling Wrigley Field, officially announcing his call to action, were another. The Cubs sent Chapman out to pitch longer than he ever had in a major league uniform, to make sure the last game at home wasn’t the last game anywhere. When a 101-mile per hour offering hurried past the swing of the final batter, the Cubs had their 3–2 win. Aroldis Chapman had his eight men out. Out of the ordinary does not begin to describe it.
“That,” Lester said after the win, “is pretty unbelievable to see.”
But what you can believe also depends on what your mind is willing to see. And of course very few choose to see things like Maddon does—“Rules and regulations don’t exist,” was another gem from his pregame media confab—so it’s understandable that deploying his closer in this circumstance would seem strange. Chapman’s previous career-high pitch count was 36; he finished with 42 on Sunday. He threw two or more innings just three times all season. He’s had a total of 14 such outings across his entire career. In the most high-leverage situation imaginable for a baseball club, down 3–1 in a series and smothered by the historical implications of possible failure, there was only mildly reliable evidence that the Cubs could count on Chapman’s left arm to last long enough to usher them back to Cleveland.
This is a problem if you think like normal people think. Joe Maddon, meanwhile, thought he could turn Aroldis Chapman into Andrew Miller. The Indians’ towering lefty reliever has shut down lineups at whatever juncture he’s entered the game this postseason, for however long he’s asked to throw. So before Game 5, Maddon approached Chapman. The Cubs manager figured that, based on recent bullpen usage, Chapman was fresh, that he hadn’t been overused. Given this, Maddon inquired if Chapman could pitch as early as the seventh inning. Chapman assured his skipper he’d be ready when called upon.
“I’m always prepared for the ninth inning,” Chapman said. “That’s my job. I understand that, but I always appreciate it if they let me know that I’m going to pitch more than the ninth inning. That’s fine with me.”
Basically, the Cubs manager saw something he really liked in Cleveland’s bullpen and decided to create one of his own. On what might have been the last day of the season. Eight outs, or bust. “Chappy came in and did something, I guess, he’s never done before,” Maddon said after the win. “So, yeah, there’s all kinds of drama out there. When you have a guy like that that can pitch that many significant outs in the latter part of the game, it’s pretty cool.”
Sure. Cool would be one word for it.
“Joe’s a wizard of baseball to me,” said reliever Carl Edwards Jr., who logged 10 pitches and one-third of an inning as a very, very short bridge between Lester and Chapman on Sunday. “The way he manages games is unreal.”
This particular plan laughed long and hard at assumptions. Chapman, like many pitchers, is a creature of routine. He shows up at the same time every day, Edwards said. Once he’s in the building, he does the exact same work, day after day, week after week. Along those lines, drastically altering his typical workload carried some risk. Chapman may appear to have a bionic left arm, but he is no programmable android. Stretching him out, and especially stretching him out over eight outs, was no sure thing.
It turned out to be so crazy that it worked. Chapman hit the second batter he faced in the thigh with a 99 mph fastball, but he induced a grounder to second after that to end a two-on, two-out threat. In the top of the eighth, Chapman misread on a sharp grounder up the first-base line—he said he finished his delivery looking at third base, and thought the ball was foul once he spun his head around—and didn’t cover the bag when Anthony Rizzo wound up making the stop. A pop-up and a strikeout later, Chapman solved a mini-jam party of his own making. Otherwise, the extended outing started with a strikeout on a 100 mph heater, then featured Chapman using a high-80s slider to mix things up as he went along, and finally ended with another fastball for a whiff and the save.
It was amazingly regular for a fairly irregular scenario. “I went a few times out there to try to slow him down—don’t try to do too much with the fastball and the sliders,” catcher Willson Contreras. “I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. He’s smart. He knows what he wants to do.”
All his team needed was one moment, Maddon insisted after a dreary Game 4 loss on Saturday night. He was referring to his club’s slumbering bats, which were roused just barely enough in Game 5, with a Kris Bryant home run keying a three-run fourth inning. But the gamble with Chapman was, ultimately, the moment Maddon sought. A little bit of baseball science with a large dollop of adventure, and maybe a sprinkle of lunacy somewhere in there—that’s how this manager runs this team. The Cubs started the evening by playing clips from Rocky in the clubhouse and shadow boxing, and they ended it by asking a closer to pitch longer than he ever had before, and all of the madness worked. They said they would be themselves on Sunday, no matter how dire the predicament, and darned if they didn’t live through the night because of it.
It was off to Cleveland for Game 6, with instantly renewed belief. Jake Arrieta, one year removed from a Cy Young season, was set to pitch. Kyle Schwarber, the burgeoning superhero early in this World Series, would return to the designated hitter slot. “We’re fired up,” Contreras said, but really, no one was getting too overheated.
A message on the clubhouse flatscreens following Game 5 informed the players that the bus would leave Wrigley Field at 7 p.m. on Monday. There was a very important additional note under that.
HALLOWEEN COSTUMES ARE ENCOURAGED ON THE PLANE, it read.
So, in some ways, the Cubs might be unrecognizable to anyone who catches them boarding their ride to Cleveland.
Then again, with the way they survived Sunday, everyone will know exactly who they are.