Joe Maddon has a very passionate message about offense:
Don't look at it!
Practically shouting after Sunday night's 2-1, 11-inning win over the visiting Reds at Wrigley Field, the Cubs skipper wanted the attention to go to what his team did when it wasn't swinging the bats.
That's hard to do, of course, when the biggest moment of the night was Starlin Castro's walk-off single into the left-center field gap, his second walk-off hit in as many nights. The infield party came courtesy of Castro's clutch knock. But it was just a small part of a victory in which the Cubs did just about everything. And that's Maddon's point.
Runs came via an 11th-inning single and a seventh-inning sacrifice fly. Excitement came from a tremendous effort from starting pitcher Jon Lester, some great defensive plays by outfielders, a sensational relay to gun down a runner at the plate and a bullpen that no matter how much it had been used refused to give up any runs Sunday night.
"Those are the things that get you to the promised land," Maddon said after the game. "So when everybody gloms on offense and just hitting, I don’t. I love the pitching, I love the defense, I love the base running. I love when you play the whole game because the hitting’s not going to be there every night.”
And the hitting wasn't necessarily there Sunday. Reds starter Anthony DeSclafani limited Cubs hitters, as did the Reds bullpen. After a bases-loaded situation in the first inning, the Cubs reached base just three times over the next five innings. It took until the seventh to tie the game at 1, when David Ross trotted home on a Dexter Fowler sacrifice fly. Chris Coghlan's double, which led off the bottom of the 11th, was the team's first hit since the seventh and gave Castro a runner in scoring position for his walk-off hit.
But it goes to show that game-changing moments came elsewhere than from the guy in the batter's box.
Lester went seven innings, allowing just one run on five hits. And though he was pestered by Cincinnati speedster Billy Hamilton — who stole a jaw-dropping five bases — he limited the few scoring opportunities the Reds did have. He coaxed an inning-ending grounder after Hamilton stole his way to third base in the third. He induced a pair of flyouts after the Reds scored their only run in the sixth. He retired 20 of the 25 batters he faced.
The highlight of the game — other than Castro's hit, of course — was the defensive play in the sixth that caught Brandon Phillips at home as he tried to score from first on Joey Votto's double to deep left-center. Phillips scored Hamilton a batter earlier with a single to shallow center that gave the Reds a 1-0 lead. But when Votto blasted his ball to the warning track, Coghlan threw in to Castro, who fired to Ross at home plate, where the catcher made a textbook tag on a sliding Phillips. It took a review to get it right, but the Cubs came out the other end with an out instead of a surrendered run. Lester took over from there, getting two straight flyouts to end that inning.
“These are the things that people don’t talk about," Maddon said. "Our cutoffs and relays have been really good this year, and I’ve really been appreciative of that. Something we talked about a lot in spring training. Everybody digs the long ball. What won the game tonight was execution and great fundamentals by our guys. Simply cutoffs and relays, tag plays at the plate. Just an all-out effort tonight."
The defense was solid all around. As was the bullpen. The Cubs, startlingly, used five relief pitchers for the fourth straight game. In every game of the series with the Reds, a total of six Cubs pitchers took the mound. It made for a tired bullpen prior to Sunday's game — Maddon said James Russell, Travis Wood, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop were all unavailable — causing the pregame roster move that added Brian Schlitter to the bullpen. Schlitter's had a tough time in 2015, but he did his job Sunday.
So did Jason Motte. Entering Sunday's contest with 11 consecutive scoreless appearances, Motte allowed a single and a double to leadoff the top of the ninth. An intentional walk to Jay Bruce loaded the bases with nobody out and the game on the line. Motte got a flyball to center, a strikeout and another flyball to center to end the threat in amazing fashion.
“We get out of it because Motte can breath, he’s under control, he’s been there before, he’s not taken by the moment," Maddon said. "That’s really obvious to me. That’s how you get out of that thing.”
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If the Cubs are going to get to baseball's "promised land," otherwise known as the playoffs, for the first time since 2008, they'll need to do it all on a regular basis. They have been lately, and Sunday's game was a prime example.
Walk-off hit or no walk-off hit, don't talk to Maddon about offense. He doesn't want to hear about it.
"Just don’t look at offense, though. People look at offense all the time. Offense is at an all-time low in the major leagues in baseball. Don’t look at it," he said. "Of course we’re going to try to get better with that, but if you play the rest of the game well and properly, you don’t need as much. And our guys are playing the rest of the game properly.”