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Deep dive: The most incredible comeback in Cubs history

3 months agoLance Brozdowski

Derek Law. Javier López. Sergio Romo. Will Smith. Hunter Strickland.

Bruce Bochy used five pitchers to face seven Cubs batters in the ninth inning of Game 4. This offseason, MLB instituted a three-batter minimum preventing teams from using a pitcher to face less than three batters, unless he ends the half-inning.

This new rule, in a way, affects the postseason more than the regular season. There were just under 500 individual pitching appearances in 2019 that would have violated this rule across a sample of over 2,000 games, according to Fangraphs. But with the postseason comes more frequent off-days, making managers are more apt to mix and match relievers in an attempt to neutralize a batter’s advantage. If this rule prevented Bochy from making four pitching changes in Game 4, perhaps the Cubs comeback would have never happened?

Bochy would have had to approach the ninth inning differently with a three-batter minimum. He used Derek Law to open the ninth, statistically the Giants top reliever in 2016 (2.13 ERA in 55 IP). But Hunter Strickland and Will Smith both threw only a modest amount of pitches compared to Law’s 35 in the prior night’s extra-innings battle. Each of those two relievers were productive pitchers that season in an otherwise weak Giants bullpen.

Whoever Bochy went with to start the ninth, it would have prevented him from calling on the lefty specialist Javier López to face Anthony Rizzo or Sergio Romo to face Ben Zobrist. The Cubs would’ve had the advantage if Rizzo faced a right-handed pitcher instead of López. But Romo threw 32 pitches the prior night in Game 3’s extra-innings battle and couldn’t find the zone against Zobrist. He served up a 3-1, 86-mph cookie that Zobrist roped to right field for a two-RBI double swinging the momentum back to the Cubs.

Bochy then turned to Smith who gave up a two-run single to Willson Contreras and Strickland who gave up an RBI single to Javier Báez, who each gave up run-scoring singles to put the Cubs up 6-5. Maybe the three-batter minimum would have changed Bochy’s approach slightly, but these two singles and Bryant’s lead-off knock highlight how unlikely it was for all three of these singles to sneak through the infield.

Teams shifted Bryant 39 percent of the time in his plate appearances during the 2016 regular season (a “shift” is defined as three fielders on one side of second base). With no runners on to lead off the ninth, the Giants shifted and yet the ball he hit falls barely in between the lateral range of the shortstop and shifted second baseman.

Contreras’ 2-run single two batters later was an even softer chopper than Bryant’s. It “had eyes,” as the saying goes, and made its way to center field, just past Smith’s outstretched bare hand.

Báez continued the Cubs BABIP luck with his own RBI single to give the Cubs a 6-5 lead and secure a visit to the NLCS. Although it’s unclear where Giants second baseman Joe Panik’s set up for the first two pitches against Báez, there’s a chance he moved away from the runner at second base and back towards his original position. This often happens with two strikes as hitters protect against breaking balls, opting to poke pitches the other way. And Baez’s single snuck right through.

An improbable rally helped the Cubs clinch the 2016 NLDS. If only they knew at the time this wouldn’t be near the craziest thing to happen on their run for the ring.

NOTES

  • The Cubs had the third-most “short-stints” from relievers (which would have violated the new three-batter minimum) in 2019 with 30. The Cleveland Indians were first with 42. (credit: Fangraphs)
  • Bryant was shifted on 39 percent of his plate appearances in 2016, a number that has grown to 51% in 2019. Contreras was shifted on 4 percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and 6 percent in 2019. Báez was shifted on 23 percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and only 9 percent of his plate appearances in 2019.

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