Max Scherzer was dealing. Jose Quintana, also dealing. It was a classic, textbook pitcher’s duel Monday at Wrigley Field. Until Joe Maddon and Dusty Baker put a stop to all that.
It wasn’t just managerial decisions that put an end to the epic pitching battle in the Cubs’ 2-1 Game 3 win that put them on the cusp of advancing to the NLCS for the third straight postseason. But both managers seemed determined, even in their postgame comments, on sticking to their predetermined scripts, making their roles in ending each All-Star pitcher’s day all the larger.
Maddon was showered with boos when he went out to remove Quintana after Kyle Schwarber’s fielding disaster in the sixth inning. The Nationals took a 1-0 lead on the first batter Pedro Strop faced, a Ryan Zimmerman hit that scored Daniel Murphy, who reached on Schwarber’s errors.
Scherzer wasn’t even all the way to his promised 100 pitches when Baker lifted his ace. The Cubs tied the game at 1 on the next hitter, Albert Almora Jr.’s clutch hit driving in Ben Zobrist and tying the game. Almora pinch hit for the aforementioned Schwarber in that moment.
The game swung dramatically immediately following both of those exits because those pitchers were nearly unhittable. They gave up a combined three hits and just one earned run. That’s it.
So why’d the managers do what they did?
Scherzer’s exit was easier to explain, given that he was coming off that much ballyhooed hamstring tweak that made his performance a mystery before Game 3 started. It turns out he had no-hit stuff until the last batter he faced. Scherzer promised he’d be well enough to throw 100 pitches. He threw 98.
“It was very difficult, but you know, we thought Max had had enough, especially coming off the injury, and you know, Schwarber is a dangerous man,” Baker said. “I probably couldn't live with myself if Schwarber had hit one out of the park on you, which he's dangerous to do that. So we thought we made the right decision. You know, he got a changeup up to Almora and you know, that was, you know — they continue to get the clutch hits.
“He was at a hundred pitches, and he had not been that far in a while. Like I said, Schwarber is a dangerous hitter. You know, if he made the pitch, then you know, we wouldn't be talking about it. But this — you know, just sometimes, you can't throw the ball where you want to throw it.”
The removal of Quintana was more difficult to explain away, and the fans in the stands booed Maddon and shouted audible “nos” when the skipper emerged from the home dugout. Quintana was making his first career postseason start, and Maddon — who even through three immensely successful seasons has earned legions of second-guessers — wanted to stick to his predetermined plan.
“I had it set up, he was not going to pitch to Zimmerman in that inning,” Maddon said. “Just happened that was a two-out error that had me bring Strop into the game. That was set up before the inning began. I really try to stay with the script that we present before the inning begins. I really felt strongly about Strop on Zimmerman. The reason is Strop has a much better chance for a punch-out as opposed to Quintana — and you don't want the ball to be moved, and he moved the baseball.”
While baseball folks are usually loath to describe a change in their mental approach, Anthony Rizzo — who had the game-winning hit in the bottom of the eighth, an inning after Scherzer was removed — admitted that everything changed once Scherzer left. The reigning Cy Young winner was untouchable into the seventh, and Rizzo said that getting him out was incredibly large for the Cubs in their comeback effort.
“He's Max Scherzer for a reason. He was dominating us, there's no two ways about it,” Rizzo said. “And Zo with that hit, the double, to get him out of the game was big for us. You just feel energy when you get guys like him out of the game. They have a really good bullpen, but when you get their ace, their guy out of the game, then obviously we have to score. But a lot of momentum when we got that one run.”
And count Zobrist, who picked up the Cubs' first hit, as one who would've kept Scherzer in the game.
"I wouldn’t have taken him the way he was pitching," Zobrist said. "He was very sharp, especially considering having not kind of having been on his normal five-day routine there. Hamstring, whatever, he didn’t show any effects of that today and he was very sharp. I just thought it was tough to take advantage of mistakes, he didn’t make a lot of them. Fortunately, with nobody on he gave me a heater I could handle and drive a little bit. In that moment, it’s just, you’ve got to believe in your guy that’s gotten you six innings the way they did. Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of it in that moment."
Managerial decisions are analyzed to death this time of year. Just look at the other side of this postseason bracket, where Yankees manager Joe Girardi has already been eviscerated for deciding not to challenge a hit by pitch. Astros manager A.J. Hinch was momentarily the subject of much online scrutiny Monday, when he put Justin Verlander into the game, only for the veteran to immediately surrender a home run.
Maddon himself is no stranger to all this noise, endlessly second-guessed for his pitching choices even after his team won the World Series. He heard that noise again, raining down on him as he removed Quintana on Monday.
The way things played out, however, Baker’s decision to lift Scherzer ended up as the more meaningful one. And, in part because of that move, the Cubs are now a game away from ending the Nationals’ season.