This whole playoff-race thing might take some getting used to for at least a few Cubs.
All-Star shortstops benched. Closers shuffled.
And, for the second time in as many starts, veteran starter Jason Hammel getting caught off-guard by a quick hook from a start with a low pitch count and the lead.
As long as it works, right?
So far so good for Joe Maddon and the Cubs.
The playoff-like urgency the manager has brought to August has coincided with a 12-1 surge over the last two weeks – including Wednesday’s 3-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Miguel Montero’s 10th-inning home run at Wrigley Field.
“From my perspective, where I’m sitting, it’s not about being nice,” said Maddon, who four innings earlier had surprised catcher Montero and angered a stunned Hammel by pulling him from his start with two out and one on in the sixth – at just 65 pitches.
“It’s about trying to do the right thing at the right moment,” said Maddon, who didn’t like the matchups with the next two batters.
The outcome supported the moves as the Cubs earned their sixth consecutive victory despite a blown save in the ninth on an unearned run – which scored on a two-out wild pitch.
“Right now the feeling in the clubhouse is that we’re pretty unbeatable,” said Montero, whose homer gave the Cubs a major-league-leading 11 walk-off wins.
They pulled to just 1½ games behind Pittsburgh for the top wild-card position in the National League.
The bullpen allowed only the unearned run in 4 1/3 innings. Chris Coghlan at second, Chris Denorfia in left and Anthony Rizzo at first made highlight-level defensive plays – including Rizzo’s tarp-leaping, wall-walking catch of a foul pop in the sixth.
And the victory music blared again in a postgame clubhouse belonging to the hottest team in the National League.
Hammel had nothing but praise for teammates and the victory, but little to say about the sixth inning or his thoughts on the manager in the aftermath.
Surprised? “Obviously,” he said.
Wanted to stay out there? “I’m trying to win ballgames. I’ll leave it at that.”
Upset? “Yeah, obviously.”
Need to talk to Maddon about this? [Pause]. “You move on.”
Maddon said he was “happy” Hammel would be upset, “because he’s such a competitor.”
But even as he stood by the value of his decision, Maddon acknowledged he might be testing some limits.
“I’m sure there’s a statute of limitations involved in something like this,” he said. “And I might be pressing it right now. However, I really like the guy a lot. I think he’s outstanding. I’m sure we’ll get through it.”
The sixth-inning sequence created a whiplash moment for Hammel, with the move coming after Rizzo made one of the highlight defensive plays of the season for the second out of the inning.
With a runner at first, Ryan Braun hit a foul popup toward the seats, and Rizzo chased it as far as he could then leaped atop the rolled tarp against the stands, stepped on the low wall, leaned over the first row and made the catch, stepping into the stands on the play.
“Probably one of the best plays I’ve ever seen I baseball,” Hammel said.
It was originally ruled no catch, until Maddon emerged to debate. After the umpiring crew huddled, the play was ruled a catch, with the runner allowed second base because Rizzo carried the ball out of play.
At which point Maddon popped out of the dugout again and headed toward Hammel.
“I really don’t remember any of it. It all kind of just really slowed down at the moment, and once I made the catch everything sped up,” Rizzo said.
“Just one of those things where instincts take over. You kind of know what’s at stake right now, so every little play matters.”