Bunt-happy Joe Maddon leads the charge in wild Cubs’ victory
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ST. LOUIS – The feel-good story of the baseball season was under the weather.
The Cubs had come down with a severe case of Lackeyitis on Friday, and one inning into Saturday’s game, symptoms persisted. These included blurred vision and blocked breathing passages.
What does one do in the face of such offensive infirmity? One turns to noted holistic medicine practitioner Joe Maddon. The remedy for all that ailed the Cubs turned out to be the humble bunt.
What followed was one of the weirdest innings in team history, which is saying something.
Four hitters got on base without a ball leaving the infield. That’s a brand of bizarreness that usually happens to the Cubs, not the other team, something former manager Lou Piniella used to call “a Cubbie Occurrence.’’ It occurs to me these Cubs might be different.
They have tied up their National League Division Series against the Cardinals at a game apiece because pitcher Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell laid down back-to-back safety squeezes to “power’’ a five-run second inning that fueled a 6-3 victory.
It started when Austin Jackson grounded into a force-out but advanced to second base on an errant throw by second baseman Kolten Wong. Jackson then stole third base. Miguel Montero walked, giving Maddon what he had been looking for – and practicing for since last month. Hendricks, the starting pitcher, bunted. His counterpart, Cardinals pitcher Jaime Garcia, fielded the ball and froze in indecision. It gave Jackson time to score and left Garcia disoriented. His throw to first sailed toward the seats at Busch Stadium, sending Hendricks to second and Montero to third.
What do you do in Maddon World? You bunt again. This time, it was Russell who played the small-ball hero, allowing Montero to score. Dexter Fowler followed with an infield single, pushing Hendricks across the plate and giving the Cubs a 3-1 lead.
Maybe the strangest part of the strange sequence of events was that the team flopping around the infield like boated fish was the Cardinals, who have a reputation for doing everything the right way and making sure you know it.
“Games like these are going to get you,’’ St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said.
Jorge Soler, clearly not going along with the minimalistic theme of the second inning, crushed a home run to raise the lead 5-1.
Maddon is one of the darlings of the analytics crowd, which isn’t fond of bunting, but he clearly does not want to be boxed in by any school of thought. So two safety squeezes in a row? Of course!
“It’s not like he’s set in his ways,’’ Hendricks said. “He reads the game. He’s in tune with the game, and whatever the situation calls for, whatever’s going to put that player that’s up there in the best (position) to succeed, that’s what he’s going to do. That’s why we’ve had success with him this year.’’
Maddon said he had been waiting for the right opportunity to use the safety squeeze, saying certain factors had to align perfectly for the play to work. He wouldn’t get into specifics, other than to say the athleticism of the opposing pitcher, the ability of the pitcher to field his position and the first baseman’s agility all played a role in his decision to call a bunt.
Mostly, he talked football.
“OK, Green Bay Packers, right?’’ Maddon said. “You had Jim Ringo, you had Fuzzy Thurston, you had (Jerry) Kramer, you had (Paul) Hornung and you had (Jim) Taylor. You knew the sweep was coming, but if you do it properly, you can’t stop it. It’s kind of like that.’’
Garcia left the game after the second with what the Cardinals called a stomach virus and what the medical community would call a five-run inning. OK, that’s not fair to Garcia. He gamely tried to play but couldn’t. Better.
John Lackey had given up only two hits over 7 1/3 innings in a 4-0 Game 1 victory. Maddon clearly wasn’t going to stand around and let it happen again. When Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo struck out to end the first inning, it was time to conjure up something. Hence something as small and whispery as a bunt. It takes a spark to start a fire.
The Cubs’ hitting isn’t the picture of health just yet, but it might not need to be Monday at Wrigley Field. Jake Arrieta, as sure a thing as there is, will be the starting pitcher for Game 3. I wonder how his bunting is these days.