Can Cubs stop Roberts from stealing another October upset?
The man once acquired by Theo Epstein to swipe what became the most famous stolen base in history is now the manager trying to steal away Epstein’s latest shot at the World Series.
And maybe literally – if Dave Roberts’ Dodgers can get the right guys on base against the Cubs’ Jon Lester and take advantage of Lester’s troubles throwing to bases in Saturday’s opener of the National League Championship Series.
“I thought about that at their place,” said Cubs catcher David Ross of the Cubs’ 1-0 loss to the Dodgers the last time Lester faced them, in the teams’ last meeting Aug. 28. “He’ll try to run the guys that can run. They don’t have a whole lot of team speed. But the guys that do run you’re going to have to be aware.”
Ross, who broke into the big leagues with Roberts as a veteran mentor with the Dodgers, calls the first-year Dodger manager one of the smartest teammates he’s had. And he was aware enough of Roberts’ guile that after the first batter against Lester reached on a walk in that August game, Ross tried to pick Howie Kendrick off first – only to have the throw get past Anthony Rizzo for a two-base error.
“They’re going to be ready,” Ross said. “They’re going to take advantage of every small detail.”
Anybody who doesn’t believe Roberts has the brass to get aggressive against Lester – or anything else the Cubs put in his way in the best-of-seven series – didn’t watch him bring his closer into Thursday’s Game 5 in Washington, squeeze 51 pitches out of Kenley Jansen, then bring Clayton Kershaw in to get the final two outs of the NLDS clincher.
“It’s so unpredictable, and you never know how it’s going to play out,” Roberts said even before Thursday during a discussion about small moments and sequences making big waves in postseason series.
Epstein, the Cubs president, made more prominent acquisitions than Roberts as the Red Sox general manager that paid off during Boston’s curse-busting fall of 2004 alone. But when Epstein talks about the smaller, detailed moves he has made over the years to put playoff rosters together, the Roberts trade that summer easily is his all-time favorite.
“For sure, it was,” he said.
Roberts’ stolen base as a pinch runner in the ninth inning of that elimination Game 4 against the Yankees in the ALCS that year turned into the tying run of a game the Sox won in extra innings – the turning point as the Red Sox overcame a 3-0 series deficit to win in seven games and go on to their first title since Babe Ruth wore red.
“Every roster is constructed with a purpose, and you never know,” said Roberts, who might win the Manager of the Year award this year because of what he has done with an injury-ravaged roster already during the regular season. “With what Theo did in 2004, to change the defensive dynamic, to get a speed player, and to get a left-handed reliever, and all these things that he did, he was mindful of every situation.
“And a lot of times in those series, that can ultimately change a series and win baseball games.”
Sometimes even championships.
“In this game where runs are such a premium,” Roberts said, “whether it’s a defensive play not made or a stolen base that you can get, I think that it just shows that some small plays or acquisitions can ultimately turn out big.”
In that game against Lester in August, by the way, the Dodgers won 1-0 on a one-out error in the ninth, followed by a two-out mental mistake on a throwing decision.
Epstein found no Roberts-like speed guy on the summer trade market this year for the Cubs. But he already has an athletic mix of young and veteran players.
So he added to a thin lefty relief corps with Mike Montgomery and even closer Aroldis Chapman – in part with an eye toward potential playoff opponents such as the heavily left-hitting Dodgers.
And don’t be surprised if rookie Rob Zastryzny – who shut down the Dodgers in a long relief appearance in August – is on the NLCS roster announced Friday morning.
“You want to start with a vision of a championship team in your mind and then work backwards from that,” Epstein said. “And think of all the things that could derail it and then try to mitigate as many of those potential obstacles as you can.”
Who knew in 2004 that 12 years later one of those October obstacles for Epstein would be Roberts.
“They’ll be prepared,” Ross said of Roberts and his underdog core of veteran hitters and electric young pitching. “They’ve got guys that are proven winners and are going to take advantage of every avenue they can.”