Like football, one of the great things about baseball is that even when the camera spotlights a single individual as hero or goat, every outcome is still usually earned as a team. For the Cubs, that was pretty much the case in each game against the Rangers. One team win, two team losses.
The offense did its job Sunday, but Cubs pitching and some of the defense represented the difference in handing the rebuilding Rangers the opening series. In some ways, it was a reminder of how the Cubs’ sputtering offense last year helped lose two games in the opening series to the lowly Marlins (who actually proved not so lowly by finishing two wins short of .500).
Following Saturday’s loss, I focused on the opening three hitters in Yu Darvish’s start and how Willson Contreras’ poor defense did him his starter no favors. In the case of Sunday’s walk-off loss Contreras did the same for a struggling Pedro Strop. But it’s not all about one person or one pitch.
The seeds for this sour fruit were actually sown back to the top of the 9th, when Joe Maddon inserted Contreras as a pinch runner for Victor Caratini, who had just reached base for the third time that game. It was a curious move for Joe Maddon, who was extremely gun-shy to pinch run in key late-inning situations with the world-class speed of Terance Gore.
Contreras is certainly faster than Caratini, but his speed is far from game-changing. Plus Conteras’ defense isn’t an appreciable improvement, particularly in the areas of framing and blocking
Interestingly, Maddon faced a similar defensive question involving Ben Zobrist. He is an average left fielder, but decidedly subpar going back on balls, which is a key skill late in games. However, with Albert Almora Jr. already in the game, the Cubs did not have an obvious defensive option to go to. I can’t speak to Mark Zagunis’s defensive skills, but the right move is to play to break the tie on offense rather than defend the tie on defense.
So no issues with Maddon’s decision to stick with Zobrist. In hindsight, the Cubs probably should have positioned him deeper to shorten his adventure in trying to track down a ball to the fence. But we can’t knock Maddon for Joey Gallo’s good luck finding Zobrist’s poor fence play. That would be the epitome of judging a decision by the outcome, not the strategy.
It’s also impossible to blame Maddon for Strop’s wildness. One must blame Strop for Strop’s wildness, though such things do happen, especially by relievers whose spring training rep were limited by injury. At the same time, Contreras did Strop no favors when the pitcher uncorked a 60-foot pitch to Nomar Mazara with Gallo on third base. One might even see fit to call his attempt a complete bush-league stab, as he failed to attempt any semblance of properly blocking the ball.
The way the pitch caromed back to the wall, many fans probably assumed the ball had hit the front of the plate and bounded over Contreras. But replays showed the ball actually ricocheted off of the catcher’s mitt as he attempted a backhand stab while slightly lifting up as if to avoid getting hit himself.
If you turned the TV off in disgust before that reply, you missed Cubs color man Jim Deshaies softly but properly noting the poor blocking technique. And you certainly didn’t hear the Rangers’ feed of the game that noted what a game-ending gift they had just received.
“[Contreras’] glove never got down,” said former pitcher and current analyst C.J. Nitkowski. “That thumb was up. Knees never hit the ground. Glove never turned over. He had absolutely no chance at that point, and it is an easy walk-off.”
Does Caratini block that pitch? That’s impossible to say. Deshaies noted that “scud pitches” like that are difficult for most catchers. But even without the ability to replay that last inning with different circumstance, it is fair to assign a poor grade to Maddon’s decision to trade moderately better speed for what may have been a reduction in blocking skill.
Though to be completely fair to Maddon, it’s not like the front office gave him a stronger backup catching option by upgrading defensively with one of the many free agent options out there. This included recent Gold Glove-winning Martin Maldonado, who signed a one-year deal with the Royals for $2.5 million, and the Rangers’ own Jeff Mathis, who signed for two years at barely more than $3 million a year.
So there’s no individual on whom to pin this play or this game outcome. As we discussed at the beginning, Sunday was a team loss all the way to that final pitch.