Dave Roberts ducked his head as he walked beneath the low ceilings inside the bowels of this century-old park. His feet trod across Wrigley Field’s stained green carpet. Halfway back to his office, he removed his cap and scratched his head, as if brushing aside the final stages of an 8-4 Dodgers loss in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
In the decisive game of the National League division series against Washington, Roberts established himself as one of the game’s premier tacticians. Two days later, in a stunning reversal against the Cubs, his choices backfired in seismic fashion.
“That’s baseball, man,” Roberts said. “I still love where we’re at.”
The disappointment stemmed from the bottom of the eighth inning, when Joe Blanton hung a slider and Chicago catcher Miguel Montero sent the baseball into orbit. The grand slam caused reverberations through the ballpark, the rumbling starting before the baseball even landed.
Roberts had maneuvered Blanton into that position, ordering a pair of intentional walks with the hopes of forcing Cubs Manager Joe Maddon to remove closer Aroldis Chapman, who was due up to bat. Maddon countered with Montero. The decision could have series-long ramifications.
Despite the defeat, the Dodgers found optimism from the top of the eighth, when the they erased a two-run deficit against Chapman. Adrian Gonzalez tied the score by smacking a single up the middle with the bases loaded. His dugout felt joy only for a few minutes, before Blanton stumbled in the bottom of the inning, but Gonzalez insisted the feeling would linger.
“This actually gives us a lot of confidence,” Gonzalez said. “We know we can beat them.”
The task of actually defeating the Cubs, not merely creating the illusion of doing so, will fall to Clayton Kershaw in Game 2. He will pitch for the third time in five days, after logging 110 pitches on Tuesday against Washington and picking up the final two outs in Thursday’s series clincher. Standing before Kershaw will be the sport’s most formidable team.
The Cubs operate with a casual cool, a quality emanating from their manager. Maddon has manufactured an aura of nonchalance around his club. The Cubs ran limited rounds of batting practice on Saturday. He did not plan to call additional meetings or alter his club’s routine.
“Today is what, Oct. 15?” Maddon said before the game. “I really want to believe our guys are going to treat it like July 15 or Aug. 15.”
The Cubs earned their confidence. The team torched the National League Central with a 103-win record. The roster features few deficiencies. The starters can go deep. The relievers’ pitches miss bats. The lineup can slug. The defenders make hits disappear.
The Dodgers are less adept in the field. As Roberts constructed his lineup in the morning, he sent a text message to Howie Kendrick, asking where he wanted to play.
Left field, Kendrick responded, a sign of his comfort in the outfielder after a decade as an infielder. His fielding raised eyebrows in the first inning.
Maeda gave up a leadoff single to outfielder Dexter Fowler. Up next, third baseman Kris Bryant smashed a slider toward Kendrick, who backtracked toward the ivy. His disinterest in colliding with the wall outweighed his need to make the catch. He jumped too soon, and missed what became an RBI double.
The Cubs kept coming. Not since 1908 has this franchise won a World Series. Not since 1907 has a Cub stolen home in a playoff game. The next two weeks will determine if the first streak will end. But second baseman Javier Baez ended the second streak in the bottom of the second inning.
After a triple by outfielder Jason Heyward, Baez drove him in with a pop-up double. He took third on a wild pitch. At the plate, starter Jon Lester tried to squeeze a bunt, but held off on an inside fastball. From behind the plate, Carlos Ruiz noticed Baez cheating homeward. Ruiz called the bluff and flung the ball to third baseman Justin Turner. Baez was not bluffing.
“If I make a better throw, we probably have a chance at home,” Ruiz said.
Turner caught the ball around his ankles. Baez slid across the plate before the ball reached Ruiz.
Down three after two innings, the Dodgers smacked a series of line drives off Lester, yet their only run against him came on a pinch-hit homer by Andre Ethier in the fifth inning. Maddon removed Lester after six innings and only 77 pitches. The early exit gave the Dodgers a chance to attack Chicago’s middle relievers.
In the eighth inning, Andrew Toles came off the bench to deliver a single. Chase Utley walked. Turner notched an infield single. With the bases loaded, Maddon called upon Chapman. He struck out Corey Seager and Yasiel Puig before Gonzalez volleyed a 102-mph fastball back up the middle for a two-run single.
“I was just trying to stay short and stay up the middle,” Gonzalez said.
Inside his dugout, Roberts erupted. The happiness did not last. Blanton served up a leadoff double to outfielder Ben Zobrist. Roberts instructed Blanton to walk Heyward, a left-handed hitter, to go after Baez. That move worked – Blanton got a first-pitch flyout.
At this point, Maddon sent outfielder Chris Coghlan to the plate. No Cub has faced Blanton more than Coghlan, who has hit .471 against him in his career. Chapman was due up next.
“The best way to win that game was to get him out of the game,” Roberts said. “I felt that if we did that, then the game was ours.”
The second walk loaded the bases as Montero came up in place of Chapman. There was no action in the Dodgers bullpen. Roberts could have chosen a left-handed batter to face Montero, a left-handed hitter. But Grant Dayton combusted in Game 5 against Washington, Luis Avilan did likewise in Game 4 and Alex Wood has not pitched since the regular season. Plus, Roberts figured Maddon would counter with right-handed hitter Willson Contreras.
So it was up to Blanton. In his mind, he ran through a previous encounter with Montero, when he fired three inside sliders in a row to strike him out. He executed the first two, although both caught more plate than he would have liked. The third pitch was the juiciest of the trio.
“I tried to do the same thing from the earlier at-bat,” Blanton said. “I just didn’t execute.”
For good measure, Blanton gave up a solo homer to Fowler. The Dodgers stitched together a run in the ninth, but not nearly enough to erase the deficit.
As optimism and disappointment competed inside of him afterward, Roberts opted for the light. The Dodgers now stand three defeats away from the off-season. They’ve been in far worse spots already.
“It just didn’t work out,” Roberts said. “But our guys fought.”