Cubs Insider Exclusive: David Ross Details 2016 NLDS Pickoff Play, Other All-Time Favorite Moments

Sadly, only two members of the 2016 Chicago Cubs remain active in this year’s playoffs, and only one of those is actually playing. Aroldis Chapman is closing for the Yankees and retired catcher David Ross can be seen regularly contributing his analysis on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight playoff coverage (full schedule here).

Ross took a break from his broadcasting duties to join Cubs Insider for a special Q&A edition of Cubs Rewind. The occasion is the two-year anniversary of his sterling pickoff of the Giants’ Conor Gillaspie in the 2016 NLDS. With Ross’s help, we take a deep dive into that throw, which I consider the most consequential defensive play in Cubs’ history. We also discussed his favorite all-time highlight and other Cubs matters.

As background, the Gillaspie pickoff came in the Cubs’ first playoff game that year. Locked in a 0-0 duel with Johnny Cueto, Jon Lester surrendered a leadoff single to Gillaspie in the top of the 3rd inning. This brought Cueto up to sacrifice bunt. Anthony Rizzo switched gloves and moved in very close to home plate with Javier Baez holding Gillaspie at first.

Chicago CubsCubs Insider: Walk us through how you saw that play unfurl.

David Ross: That was a designed play. I liked to throw the ball and back-pick a lot. With Javy at first, he’s so good with the glove and tags, you have a ton of confidence. You also knew [opponents] liked to get extra leads on Jon with his pickoff throw issues. We didn’t exactly practice the play right before the series, but we all definitely talked about it.

I also threw out Gorky Hernandez in the 1st inning, and with Connor Gillaspie, he was swinging a hot bat just then. It was definitely a big situation. In a game like that where the one home run by Javy wins it, you look back and those were key plays that may have prevented a run here and there.

CI: On the pickoff play, Lester threw a fastball up and outside, and you smoked a throw to Baez to nail Gillaspie. Was that the first time the team pulled off that pickoff in a bunt situation?

DR: I don’t think we had used that play specifically that year with Rizzo crashing in and Javy holding [the runner] on. But I had done a different version with other teams where the second baseman cheats over when the first baseman crashes in [toward the bunter].

CI: Did you only signal Lester on that play and expect Baez to be on his toes?

DR: Yeah, I just gave [Jon] the fastball signal and double-tapped my right thigh to say “I want this way off.” Then with our relationship, he knew what I was going to do. I didn’t want Cueto to bunt it because I wanted to give us one shot to try to pick the guy off.

Another aspect of that play was Jon. I had worked with Jon so much. Because Jon throws so many strikes, you’ve got confidence in him to not fall behind the hitter, or if he does, that he will be able to get back into the count. So a lot of variables were involved in that play.

Chicago CubsCI: In your biography Teammate, you said you and Lester developed a number of techniques to minimize opponents’ running games, such as modified pitch-outs and throwing behind runners on first with a right-handed hitter up. Is this when you developed this pickoff option?

With the Cubs specifically, this started in spring training with just talking with Rizz. These are things that good teams do. They talk about baseball in their down time or in spring training or on the plane rides.

DR: I had some success with stuff like this in the past. With the Cubs specifically, this started in spring training with just talking with Rizz. These are things that good teams do. They talk about baseball in their down time or in spring training or on the plane rides. When Joe reformed our bunt play a little bit with Javy moving over to hold runners on first, you gain confidence because you know what a great tagger he is.

But you also try to save those kind of out-of-the-ordinary plays for big moments, and [Game 1] was one of them where you don’t hold back. Everything goes in the playoffs, and you pull out all the stops.

CI: Did you start talking about it in your first Cubs season in 2015?

DR: No. In ’15, we adjusted more on the fly because some teams started to expose and run on Jon a little bit more. So you try to find ways to hold the runners closer, such as picking behind runners. Miguel Montero and Willson Contreras were also real good at that.

Joe also liked to do a modified pitch-out. Just a fastball off the plate where you don’t really come up and truly pitch out, but you just throw it off the plate to try to read what the other team might do. If they steal, obviously you throw it to second. But if they don’t, maybe you get a chance to back-pick.

I guess it was 2016 when Rizzo really started to crash the pitchers on bunts. Having a very athletic left-handed first baseman like him was pretty key, especially with how he could throw quickly to second and third. Then we and Joe started to learn where guys like Baez needed to be and how Rizzo needed to switch gloves.

[Maddon]’s great at letting the players be themselves, creating plays and being unpredictable as a team. He’s very open to you being yourself and making mistakes.

CI: Joe Maddon is a former catcher. Did that figure into his being more on the same page with a catcher like you?

DR: No doubt. I remember when I first got to spring training in 2015. Joe came and talked, and we threw the ball around. The first thing he said was, “I love that. Keep it up. Even if you throw it into right field, that’s the right play. Don’t lose your instincts. Don’t be scared to make a mistake.”

That opens you up and gives you a lot of freedom as players. That’s what Joe’s great at. He’s great at letting the players be themselves, creating plays and being unpredictable as a team. He’s very open to you being yourself and making mistakes. Joe gives you that freedom to not worry about the backlash you might get from your manager.

CI: Returning to the Gillaspie pickoff, it was such a great judo move in that you used your opponents’ aggressiveness against them. [Ross laughs] The Giants came in wanting to be very aggressive against Lester with bunts and on the basepaths. But when you picked off Gillaspie, that seemed to deflate that entire game plan.

DR: You’re exactly right. I’ll tell you what it also did, it keeps the other team on their toes. When they want to mess with your pitcher and are trying to take advantage of a situation, plays like that go a long way to help Jon take his mind off that stuff and just execute pitches.

To go on top of that, we ended up playing the Dodgers the next series. They tried a lot of trickery to mess with Jon too. They would get way off [with their leads], but then on the pitch they would head back to the base. That helped us a lot with turning a double play.

I also remember Ben Zobrist was in left in Game 1 and Adrian Gonzalez was on second. He would get way off second, but they knew I picked off a lot runners throughout the season. So he would get a big lead trying to mess with Jon, and then with his secondary lead, he would shuffle back toward second.

Then somebody got a base hit to left, and we threw Gonzalez out at the plate by a step. [Full play here.] I really believe that was all because Adrian Gonzalez was working back to the base. Normally nine times out of 10 that guy is safe at home plate on that kind of groundball through the infield.

I wasn’t a great hitter. So I really enjoyed picking guys off and throwing guys out. It was an ego boost for me, a kind of a “dig me” moment. I felt like it was someone challenging you, and you were able to beat them.

CI: On your personal highlight reel of great defensive plays, where does the Gillespie pickoff rank? What comes second?

DR: Actually, my favorite play by me was on a walk-off pickoff the year before in Washington.

It was the 9th inning, two outs, runners on first and second. I was catching Hector Rondon, but he was struggling. Washington was so good that year, and you felt like we might give up the one-run lead. So I went for a back-pick at first. I could have thrown the ball away, and that would have tied the game. Instead, the pick ended it for a 2-1 win.

I wasn’t a great hitter. So I really enjoyed picking guys off and throwing guys out. It was an ego boost for me, a kind of a “dig me” moment. I felt like it was someone challenging you, and you were able to beat them.

CI: Be frank, which was a bigger thrill: That play or homering in your last at-bat in the World Series?

DR: I am going to be honest with you, that last homer in the World Series was pretty awesome, but I loved picking guys off. It just happened the stage I was on in Game 7 separates the homer, but I still knew I had a lot work left to do after that homer.

However when you can end a game by picking a guy off, you can just let all that emotion out. So that was just the ultimate fun moment for me.

CI: In terms of plays by other catchers, what great plays still leave you in awe?

DR: When I was a rookie with Los Angeles, Paul Lo Duca had a pop-up going into the Dodgers dugout before they had fences there. He ran over at full speed. He slid on the rubber running track and slid all the way into the dugout. He caught the ball, missed all four steps and landed on his feet. Pretty amazing if you watch the replay. [And you can here]

CI: You didn’t catch Aroldis Chapman much in 2016. Just four times in the regular season and a couple times in the playoffs. But what was it like catching someone with that kind of velocity?

DR: You just had to be ready a little bit more. You are a little more anxious, but you have to stay relaxed because your reaction time is so limited. He could locate his pitches, but every once in a while one would take off on him. If you weren’t ready for that, it could hit the backstop pretty fast, or get on you pretty quick and handcuff you.

I always enjoyed catching him. How often do you get to catch a 103 mph pitch? When you look up at the scoreboard and see you caught a 103, not too many people can say that.

CI: Cubs Triple-A Manager Marty Pevey told me he used to use a thumb guard with Randy Johnson. With Chapman, did you ever use anything extra?

DR: No, I didn’t do anything special. I never liked the thumb guard. I just tried to relax, like catching a knuckleballer. Just relax and react, rather than being so stiff. You can get a bit beat up when you are too rigid back there.

I think the Cubs this year just lacked that rhythm they regularly have. Baseball is a really, really hard game to play and be good at over and over again. Those guys put their heart and souls out there.

CI: In Theo Epstein’s end-of-season press conference after this year’s Wild Card game, he noted a lack of daily urgency by the team as compared to 2016. A vital role you played was to get on teammates and remind them of the focus and urgency needed to win a title. In that respect, do you think they have yet to fill your void?

DR: It is hard to take credit for some of the stuff I get credit for because you are just being yourself. When you are in a group like that, part of something special like that, everyone has their role. I was just a small piece of that puzzle.

I think the Cubs this year just lacked that rhythm they regularly have. I watched the games closely, but Theo knows better than I do. Theo has a good pulse on that team. I know there are a lot of talented guys in there and a lot of leaders in there. Baseball is a really, really hard game to play and be good at over and over again. Those guys put their heart and souls out there.

CI: In your biography, you quoted Javy Baez saying you could be a “red ass” at times. I think the Cubs could use another red ass with his heart in the right place at times.

DR: [Laughs] That never hurts. That’s for sure.

To view the 2016 Gillaspie pickoff play in full, click here for the original Fox Sports broadcast.

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Jeff Burdick

A California-based refugee of Chicago, Jeff loves writing about baseball through the lens of his favorite hometown team.

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