To better grasp what Joe Maddon means when he talks about his team learning how to win, look no further than Anthony Rizzo’s ninth-inning walk on Tuesday.
While there were many critical components to the Cubs’ stunning four-run rally on Tuesday night, one which lifted them to a 6-5 win over the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 and clinched the National League Divisional Series, Rizzo’s six-pitch plate appearance was as significant as any.
Stuck in a series-long slump, Rizzo overcame those struggles to provide his club with a big moment when it was needed most. The Cubs pulled ahead for good four batters later and spent Thursday afternoon participating in a light workout at Wrigley Field to stay fresh for the upcoming National League Championship Series instead of playing in a potential NLDS elimination game.
“At the end of the day you learn how to win,” Maddon said. “What does that mean? It’s something you have to participate in daily. There’s a support system within the group and the confidence you show up and play with. You know something bad is going to happen and you fight through it. We’re at that point.”
The scenario Rizzo had to engage in late Tuesday had an extremely high degree of difficulty. Not only had he entered Game 4 without reaching base in 13 at-bats, Rizzo was tasked with keeping the line moving against San Francisco’s Javier Lopez, one of the best postseason situational relievers of the 21st century. Since joining the Giants, Lopez had allowed one run in 24 postseason appearances with only seven of 28 batters he faced reaching base.
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But as general manager Jed Hoyer noted Thursday, Rizzo realized the situation he faced and put on “a great at-bat against a lefty.” With no outs, a man on first and the Cubs down three runs, Rizzo tightened up his strike zone and took a 3-2 pitch for ball four. The free pass set up an RBI double by Ben Zobrist and the Cubs were off to the races.
Rizzo, who belted 32 home runs and finished the regular season with a .928 OPS, said in an ESPN 1000 radio interview Thursday he simply tried to do too much in the first three games of the NLDS. But he shook it off in enough time for the Cubs.
“Honestly, the walk there in the ninth was more important than any hit I got all year,” Rizzo told ESPN’s David Kaplan.
Maddon didn’t think any of Rizzo’s struggles were because of a mechanical issue. He simply though his three-time All-Star first baseman had expanded a strike zone that has helped him produce an average of 75 walks the past three season and a .386 on-base percentage.
“What it comes down when guys aren’t hitting well, it’s normally because their strike zone becomes unorganized,” Maddon said. “That’s it. When you start chasing pitches out of the zone, you get in bad counts, the pitcher gains an advantage. That’s why guys don’t hit. It’s not because there’s anything mechanically flawed.”
Rizzo attributed his Game 4 success -- he also walked in the first inning and later singled -- to his teammates. Rather than focus on his mini-slump, Rizzo stayed confident and focused with encouragement from his elders.
Their theme: “It doesn’t matter what (you’ve done before),” Rizzo said. “It’s the next at-bat. It doesn’t matter if you get four hits and we lose. What are the four hits worth? You just got to keep fighting and keep grinding.”