Deep Dive: An unlikely hero for Cubs
Just under four minutes before Miguel Montero hit a go-ahead grand slam in Game 1 of the 2016 NLCS, the Cubs on-deck circle was empty. Dave Roberts had lefty specialist Grant Dayton warming in the bullpen and Joe Blanton in the game. After Blanton committed to intentionally walking Chris Coghlan to load the bases, Montero stepped out of the dugout and into the batter’s box.
After appearing in 90 games or more as a catcher for five straight seasons, the 32-year-old Montero struggled in 2016. His average had fallen to a career-low .216 and his defense, routinely the reason for his success, fell statistically to a level he hadn’t performed at in seven years. The pitcher he faced in the eighth inning, Blanton, had been stellar for the Dodgers in their NLDS matchup with the Washington Nationals. He cruised through five innings across four games, striking out five and allowing only two baserunners.
In this game, Blanton gave up a double to Zobrist on a changeup that caught too much of the plate to start the eighth inning. He threw three straight sliders out of the zone to Addison Russell before battling back and getting the Cubs shortstop to ground out. Then he intentionally walked Jason Heyward before Javier Báez flew out to right field.
There were some signs — particularly against Russell — that Blanton did not have his most effective slider compared to his outings in the NLDS. But Roberts stuck with him nonetheless.
For two pitches, it seemed like a good move. Montero fouled off the first slider Blanton threw as it ran into the handle of his bat. Blanton then hung another slider, this one Montero emphatically whiffed on. For any hitter, a two-strike count is a difficult spot. Hitters batted .176 and slugged only .276 in two-strike counts during the 2016 regular season. Montero fell right in line with the league average when he got to two strikes.
Blanton held left-handed hitters to a slugging percentage below .200 in two-strike counts. During the 2016 regular season, he threw only two pitches directly over the heart of the plate in two-strike counts versus left-handed hitters (114 total pitches). His target was usually low-and-in to left handers or attacking a left-handed hitter’s back foot. In this instance, however, with his slider location not as precise as usual, he went back to his slider one more time in the 0-2 count.
Grandal set up off the plate inside and the pitch ended up nearly middle-middle. Boom. Montero hit the first postseason home run of his career and put the Cubs ahead 7-3.
Considering the poor location of his 0-1 and 0-2 hanging sliders, Blanton did something he had barely done all season on back-to-back pitches. It was equally incredible that Montero was able to take advantage after coming off the bench just a few minutes before.
Arguably the most memorable moment of Montero’s career was also one of his last. After making his name as a great defensive catcher and pitch framer, 2017 was the first year of decline below the league average. He mustered only 213 plate appearances that year and retired during the winter after the 2018 season. This home run will exist as one of the many turning points in the Cubs’ 2016 run for the ring.
- Coghlan was 8-for-17 versus Blanton in his career with 1 double, 2 RBI, 2 strikeouts and 3 walks (1.079 OPS) before his intentional walk in Game 1.
- Dayton held left-handed hitters to a .144 average in 2016 (46 total batters faced), yet remained in the bullpen when Montero was announced as a pinch-hitter.
- During the 2016 regular season, Miguel Montero made the first pitching appearance of his career for the Cubs. He threw 1.1 innings, allowing 4 hits and 1 earned run, on July 3 in a 14-3 loss to the Mets at Citi Field.