LOS ANGELES – The Cleveland Indians have already shown how to win a pennant with a shaky rotation, withstanding injuries to two frontline starters – Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar – and working around Trevor Bauer’s freak drone accident. The bullpen has become such a dominant postseason theme that lights-out reliever Andrew Miller can become the ALCS MVP.
Joe Maddon has already shown that he will be just as aggressive with the bullpen and manage the Cubs with a sense of urgency, even if it infuriates John Lackey and causes a scene on national TV.
“You have to understand I’m dealing with some really highly-charged personalities here, guys that have been there, done that,” Maddon said Thursday. “They’re good and they’re very proud men, so I respect and understand all of that. But at the end of the day, it’s about more than just one person here and what we’re trying to get done.
“You have to make some tough decisions and not everybody’s going to like them all the time. But in the moment, I thought it was the right thing to do, and so we did it.”
Maddon took a deep breath and took the long way from the visiting dugout around the 2016 NLCS logo painted onto the grass on Wednesday night, understanding what would be waiting for him on the Dodger Stadium mound. Another classic Lackey Being Lackey reaction: “You’ve got to be (bleeping) kidding me.”
The Cubs signed Lackey for these “Big Boy Games,” but Maddon didn’t trust a two-time World Series champion with a four-run lead, pulling him at 72 pitches after he walked the eighth (Andrew Toles) and ninth batters (pinch-hitter Andre Ethier) to begin the fifth inning, signaling for lefty Mike Montgomery to face the top of the Los Angeles lineup.
“How I feel personally is irrelevant right now,” Lackey said after a 10-2 victory tied up what has been a classic best-of-seven series. “It was a great team win. Good to see our guys swing the bats well.”
The bullpen is one of the first things Maddon thinks about as soon as he wakes up each morning. Where writing out the lineup takes around five minutes, he usually spends about an hour pregame thinking through matchups and possible situations.
“It’s all about the bullpen,” Maddon said. “When’s too long? What’s the right time to get him out? You do not want to let that horse out the door right there. You don’t want to all of a sudden have them get even close to tying it up – or tying it up – and then attempt to make your moves. You have to be proactive.”
Lackey had a strong regular season (11-8, 3.35 ERA) interrupted by a strained right shoulder that sidelined him from the middle of August until early September. Lackey lasted only four innings in the divisional round before the Cubs made that epic Game 4 comeback at AT&T Park and eliminated the San Francisco Giants. October, of course, is where Lackey expects to live up to his two-year, $32 million contract.
“You can keep pushing,” Lackey said. “I’m not going to tell you what you want me to tell you.”
Yes, Lackey sometimes shows up teammates and dismisses reporters on the days he pitches, but he’s a different guy within the clubhouse and the Cubs wanted this competitive attitude. Maddon saw it as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach when Lackey – as an Anaheim Angels rookie – beat Barry Bonds and the Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.
“John gets angry,” Maddon said. “Again, it shouldn’t surprise anybody. (Umpire) Angel (Hernandez) behind home plate was feeling the wrath also. John vibrates at that frequency. You know that. He’s an edgy human being. He’s an edgy baseball player. So if you’re surprised by it, then that’s your fault. Johnny’s always been like that.”