Oh, how quickly the tables were turned.
The Cubs, they of the 103 regular-season wins, entered the World Series as the presumptive favorites in the minds of nearly all who chose to be foolish enough to actually forecast the madness that is postseason baseball. The Cubs have the star power and the narrative and the Kris Bryant. That didn’t matter, because the Indians have the pitching. They have Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw. Chicago now teeters at the precipice of elimination, a hair’s breadth from breaking the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere. Joe Maddon will need to play his hand tonight perfectly, because if they don’t succeed tonight, there will be no Game Seven over which to agonize. He’ll need to save the season, and he’ll need his bullpen to do it.
Given that the Cubs have almost no margin for error at this point, they will need to maximize run prevention above all else. Cleveland will be deploying Josh Tomlin and Kluber in games Six and Seven, respectively, along with a likely heavy dosage of Miller. Runs will be at a premium. Kyle Schwarber will be back in the Chicago lineup, which will help, but there’s only so much he can do when Willson Contreras and Javy Baez are swinging at pitches thrown into the next state and Jason Heyward’s bat is on the side of a milk carton. These games will be about preventing runs, not scoring them.
Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks are good men to have on the mound for these purposes. These are good pitchers — great pitchers, even — who can mute a lineup on any given day. The immediate onus is on them to keep Cleveland off the board. Should they show any sign of faltering, however, Maddon needs to be quick to act.
The idea of liberal bullpen usage in the postseason is not a new concept, nor is it an outlandish one. The emergence of the Wade Davis Royals, and now of the Miller Indians, is proof enough that the idea is accepted by the mainstream. Teams have built themselves with this notion in mind. This is why Cleveland paid out for Miller, why the Cubs paid out for Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery, and it’s why the Yankees now have arguably the top farm system in baseball. The system works when you have the personnel to implement it.
The Cubs thought that they would be able to do this, or at least do so with more ease. Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop were brilliant last year, and 2016 has seen the emergence of Montgomery and Carl Edwards as reliable short-stint arms. With the addition of Chapman, the Cubs looked brilliant on paper. It hasn’t worked out that way. Rondon has been nearly phased out of the picture entirely, and Strop is struggling to find innings. Montgomery and Edwards seem to be the only non-Chapman relievers in Maddon’s high-leverage circle of trust at the moment.
So, how should Maddon tackle these last two games, given that he lacks weapons? More importantly, how should he tackle tonight?
Arrieta, if he’s on, is a world-beater. He won the Cy Young award in 2015 because he was a world-beater for nearly the entire season. This is the version of Arrieta the Cubs desperately need to appear tonight. In a perfect world, Arrieta will pitch with aplomb into the seventh inning or so, and then the Cubs can go straight to Chapman. The fireballer’s 2.2-inning outing on Sunday night was unprecedented in some ways by his standards, but he was still throwing gas with his 40th pitch. Chapman should be able to provide length with the cushion of an off day in between outings. He’s reportedly been loathe to pitch more than a single clean inning in the past, of course, and there’s no telling how the long outing might effect him. If it worked once, though, Maddon needs to be willing to try it again. The more outs he can get from his closer, the better.
Things get a lot more interesting if Arrieta is hittable. Let’s say Arrieta is forced out in the fourth or fifth inning. This may not necessarily mean that he self-immolated in a Chernobyl-level event. Rather, if Arrieta has given up even three runs after four innings, Maddon must consider removing him. The Cubs can ill afford to give themselves a mountain to climb given the struggles of the lower half of the lineup, Schwarber or no Schwarber. Maddon can’t continue to mire himself in the plodding conservatism he’s displayed this postseason.
Luckily, Montgomery is fairly well stretched out and can give the team multiple innings. He’s also well equipped to pitch in a hitter’s park like Progressive Field. Montgomery sported a 58.9% ground-ball rate, the 14th-best mark among all qualified relievers this season. Edwards should also be able to throw two innings following the off day. In fact, Maddon should be prepared to absolutely empty the tank for his relievers, including Chapman, to win this game.
There’s no tomorrow for the Cubs. If there is a tomorrow, it will likely involve Lester coming out of the bullpen to back up Hendricks, and possibly even another dose of Arrieta (Randy Johnson once pitched in back-to-back games in the World Series, and Arrieta is a ridiculous physical specimen). Even then, Montgomery and Edwards and Chapman, and everyone else who may or may not pitch tonight, will be on call. Game Seven of the World Series is the very definition of all hands on deck.
Maddon must manage these games as if there will never be another baseball game played ever again. The Cubs are built to last, but so were the Buffalo Bills in the 90s. Returning to the World Series isn’t a sure thing, and neither is winning once you get there. There is no tomorrow for Chicago. They sacrificed that luxury when they dropped the first two games at Wrigley Field.
Burn it all down now. Win now.
Make history now.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.