The Rundown: R-I-Z-P-E-C-T, El MagZo Justifies Maddon’s Moves, Heyward’s Swing Still Awkward

There are precious few rules by which I’ve chosen to live my life, and I think we’re good enough friends that I can share them with you now.

  1. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
  2. Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.
  3. Never pitch to an MVP candidate late in a tie game with first base open.
  4. Never go to a lefty reliever just to face Anthony Rizzo.

I’m not sure from exactly which region of Italy Big Tony’s family hails, but Dusty Baker may have broken three of my rules with a single move Monday afternoon. This is one of the aspects of the series we mentioned on a recent episode of the Cubs Related podcast, the idea of Baker being out-managed by going with handedness rather than statistical analysis.

It’s true that bringing Oliver Perez in to face Rizzo had worked in the previous game, when the first baseman grounded into a double play. Shortly thereafter, the Nationals launched a pair of homers to come from behind and win the game. So you know Baker was feeling good about repeating the move. But you can only go back to the same well so often before it comes up dry.

Perez went back to that same 94 mph sinker in pretty much the same place, but this time Rizzo was able to channel his inner Bill Murray to flop a lob wedge shot right onto the green. A host of Nationals converged on the ball, but its placement and their proximity to one another prevented any diving attempts. Leonys Martin, in the game as a pinch runner, scored easily from second to give the Cubs the lead.

The conquering hero was a wee bit fired up after the play, bellowing “RESPECT ME!” as he headed back to the dugout with the lead.

“You know, those big situations, I wanna be up there,” Rizzo told ESPN after the game. “And I take it personal when there’s a base open and two outs and they pitch to me. It’s just the way my mentality is.”

Rizzo is now 4-for-4 with five RBI in the playoffs when he bats with runners in scoring position, which I think is good. And when you consider that the Cubs have only scored eight total runs in the three games so far, I guess “good” is putting it lightly.

In games that have featured sterling starting pitching performances and (mostly) stellar relief efforts, it’s exploits like Rizzo’s that determine the outcomes. Of course, they’re not the only exploits that should be noted.

Maddon’s moves pan out

Joe Maddon has come under fire for his questionable decisions in high-pressure situations, particularly when it comes to the bullpen. A lot of that comes down to a confluence of preconception and poor results, but there’s no denying some of the moves he’s made have had people scratching their heads.

The kerfuffle coming out of Saturday’s game dealt with letting Carl Edwards Jr. pitch to Bryce Harper with a man on. My thinking is that the Stringbean Slinger was probably the Cubs’ best option in that situation, and Brendan Miller’s post expresses similar sentiments, though it’s easy to see why others would hold contrary opinions.

So it was pretty awesome to see Edwards right back out there for the 8th inning of Monday’s game with the top of the Nats’ order due up. Which means Harper, who came up with one out and no one on after Trea Turner grounded out (more on that) to open the frame.

No curveballs this time time, as Edwards reared back and gave one of the best hitters in the game the straight gas. Working strictly on the inner third of the plate and in, Edwards got Harper swinging on a 95 mph heater well off the plate. Then he got Anthony Rendon to ground to short and walked off the mound issuing a primal yell that exorcised any remaining demons.

Maddon then went to the patient Tommy La Stella, who drew a leadoff walk as a pinch hitter and was lifted for Leonys Martin as a runner. Jon Jay, making his first start of the series, bunted Martin over to second, after which he scored the winning run on Rizzo’s big hit.

Then you had the decision to swap Albert Almora Jr. for Kyle Schwarber against lefty Sammy Solis, a decision that netted the Cubs’ first run. Or bringing on Pedro Strop to relieve Jose Quintana. But the biggest and most obvious move Maddon made was to start Ben Zobrist at second base over Javy Baez.

It looked unwise for a while, but Zobrist rewarded his manager’s faith by recording the Cubs’ first hit and scoring that first run. And then he morphed into El MagZo to absolutely rob Turner on that aforementioned leadoff groundout in the 8th.

With four errors and no hits through six innings, this wasn’t feeling like a game the Cubs should have won. But they didn’t get down, didn’t worry about what the stats said about their odds, and didn’t worry about how fans had reacted to their manager’s decisions. As a result, their come-from-behind win ended up pushing them to the brink of their third straight NLCS.

Now it’s time to get one more.

Jason Awkward

After breaking it down ad nauseam for more than a year as he struggled through his first season in Chicago and then in a retooling effort this spring, I had pretty much given up on fretting about Jason Heyward’s swing. Then a friend pointed that crazy thing the right fielder does with his left hand immediately pre-swing and I found myself unable to pay attention to anything else.

It’s not a new issue by any stretch, this is something the Braves were well aware of during Heyward’s tenure in Atlanta. But it’s just crazy that he’s able to swing a bat at all, let alone generate even the most meager results. And, as evidenced by a 112 wRC+ in September (his first 100+ month in a Cubs uniform), the results have been anything but meager of late.

This has become an incredible mystery to me, particularly after being rapt by the way his hands are wrapped around his bat. If you watch, you’ll see that he rotates his top hand inward noticeably, pointing his knuckles toward the pitcher. If you’ve got room and don’t have anyone around to wonder what in the hell you’re doing, go ahead and take a mock swing or two with your hands like that.

Feels pretty messed up, huh? Your top wrist would end up curled in and you’d never be able to generate any bat speed through the zone. But that’s only if you lock that wrist, which is more or less physically impossible. Instead, you’d have to rotate the hand back so that it lines up with its mate in order to complete the swing.

What you have at that point is the towel-wringing motion that has been cited more than once in the past with Heyward. It’s a small motion in and of itself, but even the smallest link in the kinetic chain is vitally important. The needless, counterproductive hitch eliminates all margin for error and essentially ensures that Heyward has to be either perfect or lucky to produce any results at all, to say nothing for power.

I’m not sure there’s anything Heyward can do about it now, either. The quirk is as indelible a part of his move as Jon Lester’s inability to throw over to first base. Running into double plays on shallow flies hit right in front of him, however, that’s a different kettle of fish.

More news and notes

  • In case you want to further commemorate Rizzo’s big RBI, we have some shirts for you.
  • Cubs starters have gone 18.2 innings with only a single earned run allowed so far in the series, good for a 0.48 ERA.
  • The Astros eliminated the Red Sox from the playoffs with a 5-4 win Monday.
  • Tuesday’s forecast calls for rain in Chicago, so the 4:38 CT start time has been confirmed. Let’s just hope they get it going and get it in.
  • The Angels announced that they have acquired former Cub Felix Pena, who had been designated for assignment following the acquisition of Luke Farrell.
  • Paul Molitor has signed a three-year extension to remain as the Twins’ manager.
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