The Moment: Hammel makes Lackey pay
When the history of the 2015 Chicago Cubs is written, the scribes will scribble ... well, at this point we still don’t know what the scribes will scribble. That depends largely on what happens in the next three weeks. But the heroes of their Division Series-clinching Game 4, a 6-4 win over visiting St. Louis on Tuesday night, will be Anthony Rizzo, whose tiebreaking homer in the bottom of the sixth inning proved the deciding blow, and Javier Báez, who struck a three-run blast in the second inning.
It certainly didn’t have to happen that way, though, and in fact something mighty improbable had to happen first.
Two batters into the game, the Cardinals were up 2-0 on rookie Stephen Piscotty’s homer. That was still the score in the bottom of the second when the Cubs mounted a rally: first an infield single, then a fielder’s choice, then a laser up the middle. But when John Lackey struck out Miguel Montero, the only thing between Lackey and a nifty escape was his opposite number, Jason Hammel.
Hammel’s been a decent hitter ... for a pitcher. In 268 regular-season at-bats, Hammel’s batted .134 with six walks and a homer. Easy pickings for an old hand like Lackey, who’s held pitchers to a .173 batting average (18 for 104) in his career. In fact, there was some sentiment among the cognoscenti for a second-inning pinch-hitter, as Hammel hadn’t been impressive in his two innings on the mound.
Manager Joe Maddon wasn’t having any of that. Hammel batted for himself.
Lackey threw Hammel a first-pitch cutter, which C.J. Nitkowski calls a strange pitch in that situation. Especially when thrown right down the pipe. And Hammel ... well, you can see for yourself:
How bad was that pitch? Here’s a pretty fair representation:
Upon giving up the run-scoring single, Lackey was apoplectic, smacking himself on the head, and seeming to scream something about throwing a g**-d*** fastball.
Would regular St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina — who sat out with an injured left thumb — have called for a low-90s fastball, and then convinced Lackey to throw one of those instead of the 83 mph cutter he did throw? The cutter that’s probably Lackey’s third- or fourth-best pitch, at least this year? Or would he have given Lackey a better, more convincing target?
Of course we’ll never know. But considering the magical powers so often ascribed to Molina, we must at least recognize the possibility.
Still, Hammel’s hit merely halved the Cardinals’ lead. Lackey’s fat pitch and Hammel’s single didn’t directly cost them a great deal. But just as Hammel hacked at Lackey’s first (fat) pitch, Báez did the same. This time Lackey did throw the low-90s fastball, but he left it up — granted, also on the outside edge of the strike zone — and Báez walloped it over the right-field fence for a three-run homer.
In the event, neither starting pitcher would survive even four innings. Lackey was pulled for a pinch hitter in the fourth inning, and by then Hammel was already gone; neither would be involved in the decision.
But everything good that happened for the Cubs later — Rizzo’s homer in the sixth, Schwarber’s insurance blast in the seventh — mattered because way back in the second inning, major-league pitcher John Lackey threw amateur hitter Jason Hammel one of the few pitches he could actually hit with some authority.
On such small things, championships are won. And yes, lost.