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Column: Joe Maddon’s call for John Lackey to relieve was Cubs’ downfall

Cody Bellinger talks about the Dodgers defeating the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLCS.

If the Chicago Cubs are America’s cuddly little team, then Joe Maddon is America’s cuddly little manager, an affable baseball lifer who is well-read and has a wide range of interests that extend far beyond the foul lines.

Well, sorry, America, but your man blew it.

And to think it was because Maddon couldn’t shake tradition, a somewhat unexpected turn of events considering this was the same renaissance man who changed how defense is played in the major leagues with his frequent use of shifts as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Maddon stuck by baseball’s old axiom of not using a closer with a tied score on the road, which was why three-time All-Star Wade Davis remained seated in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium while reliever-by-necessity John Lackey served up a walk-off, three-run home run to Justin Turner in the Cubs’ 4-1 defeat to the Dodgers.

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His thinking wasn’t without reason, but John Lackey? Really?

Convention won the tug-of-war in Maddon’s mind, the Cubs lost, and now the defending World Series champions trail 2-0 in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.

This series looks over. The teams’ lineups and rotations are comparable, but there is a considerable gap in the bullpens and how they are managed. Dave Roberts knows what he’s doing while Maddon looks like he’s running low on the smoke, mirrors and luck that allowed his imbalanced team to reach this stage of the postseason.

Asked why he didn’t call on Davis to pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning, Maddon pointed to the division series, when the right-hander recorded a seven-out save in the fifth and deciding game against the Washington Nationals. Davis pitched four times in that series.

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“He had limited pitches,” Maddon said.

Maddon emphasized that he didn’t want Davis to warm up and not be used.

“It was one inning only, and in these circumstances, you don’t get him up and then you don’t get him in,” Maddon said. “So if we had caught a lead, he would have pitched. That’s it.”

The Dodgers had the bottom of their order up in the bottom of the ninth inning. But on the mound for the Cubs was Brian Duensing, who pitched a scoreless eighth.

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Instead of counting his blessings that Duensing was able to put up a zero and moving on to Davis or experienced reliever Hector Rondon, Maddon doubled down on the left-hander. Duensing had pitched 68 times in the regular season and twice in the postseason.

Duensing started the inning by walking Yasiel Puig, who had walked twice before. Puig advanced to scoring position on a sacrifice bunt by Charlie Culberson. Pinch-hitter Kyle Farmer struck out.

With two outs, the top of the order was up, starting with the right-handed-hitting Chris Taylor. Davis wasn’t warmed up but Lackey was.

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A career starter, Lackey didn’t make an appearance in the division series. Now, he was being asked to make a relief appearance for the second consecutive night, this time with a runner in scoring position.

How the inning played out was pitifully predictable.

When starting pitchers make relief appearances, there’s a reason managers prefer the bases to be empty. Starting pitchers are greater risks to not have command immediately.

“I’m just betting on his experience right there as much as anything,” Maddon said.

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The wager was lost and Lackey walked Taylor. Now, the Dodgers were sending their best hitter to the plate in Turner.

Maddon acknowledged this spelled trouble.

“I liked him a lot on the first guy, Taylor,” Maddon said. “Once that walk occurred, all bets were off against Turner. Nobody is a really great matchup against Turner.”

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Turner launched a 1-and-0 fastball into the center-field side of the left field pavilion.

Lackey was his prickly self after the game. Asked about his final pitch, Lackey replied dismissively, “I’ll talk to my pitching coach about that.”

Davis diplomatically backed his manager, under whom he started his career in Tampa Bay. He said he wasn’t disappointed to not get the baseball in the ninth inning.

“We have confidence in everybody who goes out there,” Davis said. “There’s no disappointment in any of that. Lackey’s track record in the playoffs has been amazing. I don’t think that’s something to second-guess.”

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Davis acknowledged he was fatigued from the previous series, but didn’t say he couldn’t have pitched, either.

“Everything’s pretty taxing in the playoffs,” he said. “You take the ball when the manager asks you to take the ball.”

But by the time Davis is finally asked, it could be too late.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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