Tommy La Stella

What was Joe Maddon thinking when he pinch hit for Kyle Hendricks? 'You gotta look at the whole thing'

What was Joe Maddon thinking when he pinch hit for Kyle Hendricks? 'You gotta look at the whole thing'

An important decision faced Joe Maddon in the fifth inning of the Cubs’ 7-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field: Leave Kyle Hendricks in to hit, or pull him for a pinch hitter?

The situation was far more complicated than that description would present, though. The Cubs were losing 1-0 but hadn’t looked threatening against Pirates starter Ivan Nova, who had scattered three singles and a walk to that point. Addison Russell led off the fifth with a single, and Chris Gimenez reached on an error when shortstop Jordy Mercer bobbled a sure-fire double play ball. 

Meanwhile, Hendricks had thrown 86 pitches and admitted after the game he was struggling to be consistent with his mechanics. The Pirates had their Nos. 2-4 hitters looming in the top of the sixth, all of whom hit left-handed (Austin Meadows, Corey Dickerson and Colin Moran). Lefty reliever Brian Duensing had held left-handed hitters to a .222/.326/.306 slash line in 44 plate appearances this year. 

And Tommy La Stella was there on the bench with 12 hits, five walks and seven RBIs, and hadn’t hit into a double play, in 36 pinch-hit plate appearances this year. 

So for Maddon, all that information pointed to one decision: Pull Hendricks, insert La Stella and try to generate some offense while leaning on a solid bullpen for the final four innings of the game. 

“You gotta look at the whole thing,” Maddon said. “We weren’t scoring a whole lot of runs so you gotta try to get them whenever you can. La Stella hitting, top of the order coming up, I’ll take my chances.”

Maddon’s decision, though, backfired in spectacular fashion. La Stella hit into a double play and Javier Baez struck out to put a swift end to the inning. Duensing came in and promptly gave up two hits and two walks, then was pulled for Luke Farrell, who allowed a three-run triple to Gregory Polanco (who entered Sunday barely hitting above the Mendoza Line). 

All told, the Pirates gouged the Cubs for five runs in the sixth inning, putting the game out of reach on a miserably chilly and foggy afternoon on Clark and Addison. 

To Hendricks’ credit, he wasn’t miffed at the situation and was understanding and accepting of Maddon’s reasoning. 

“That’s part of the game right there,” Hendricks said. “Got a chance to get on the board and you gotta take it. Unfortunately it didn’t work out but nine times out of 10 with Tommy that’s going to work. You gotta play the percentages there.”  

Maddon didn’t shy away from presenting his reasoning after the game, and he probably would’ve made things worse had he publicly second-guessed himself (or Duensing, or La Stella, or Hendricks, etc.). So while his move backfired, and was the catalyst for a dour six-run loss, it was hardly the end of the world for a team that’s 12 games over .500 with 100 more left in the regular season. 

“It was all set up,” Maddon said. “You got the best pinch hitter in the league coming up and he just happens to hit into a double play, which is going to happen on occasion. But Kyle did hit job, everything was right there. We just did not get the hit.” 

Cubs are still without Kris Bryant, but insist there's no need to worry

Cubs are still without Kris Bryant, but insist there's no need to worry

CLEVELAND — The Cubs will play a second straight game without Kris Bryant, but that doesn't mean fans should start panicking.

Bryant hasn't played since getting hit in the head in the top of the first inning in Sunday's game with a 96 mph fastball.

Bryant has been cleared by doctors in Colorado and Cleveland and will meet with the Cubs team doctor Thursday in Chicago. 

The Cubs kept their MVP third baseman out of the lineup Tuesday to give him an extra day of rest, initially hoping he'd be back Wednesday before deciding Tuesday night they should give him another day.

"He's not bad, he's fine," Joe Maddon said. "It's just one of those things. He's been seeing the doctors. There's nothing awful. It's just a matter of getting him ready to play.

"I'm not hearing anything bad. Not at all. I really anticipate good soon. If anything went the other way, I think we'd be surprised."

Head injuries are very tricky and sometimes symptoms can show up days after the initial trauma. That doesn't appear to be the case here with Bryant, but the Cubs also don't want him to rush back until he's ready physically, mentally and emotionally.

The key word there is "trauma," because it was a traumatic experience for Bryant and something he'll have to come to terms with mentally before he can step back in that batter's box.

"Sometimes that's necessary," Maddon said. "Again, he got hit, I didn't. I'm listening to him right now. So whatever he says, I'm very amenable to right now. 

"I could sense [Tuesday] he wasn't quite ready. ... I don't anticipate any long delay."

The Cubs started Tommy La Stella for a second straight game Wednesday in Bryant's place. La Stella played third base Tuesday and was originally slotted for the same spot Wednesday before a last-minute change moved him to second with Javy Baez playing the hot corner.

The value of a unicorn like Tommy La Stella

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AP

The value of a unicorn like Tommy La Stella

A Cubs player turned to his right, saw Tommy La Stella sitting in a chair in the Miller Park visiting locker room, smiled and said:

"Dude, you're the best pinch-hitter ever."

La Stella laughed it off and resumed watching The Masters. 

"Best Pinch-Hitter Ever" may not rival "Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" in terms of importance to a Cubs team with World Series expectations, but La Stella's role has always been under the radar.

The 29-year-old utility man has only tallied 353 at-bats over his four seasons in a Cubs uniform, but he's been a mercenary of sorts for manager Joe Maddon, who can deploy La Stella at the most opportune times in a game.

He appeared in all but one of the Cubs' first 10 contests in 2018, though had just one start. Still, he's gone 3-for-8 in a pinch-hitting capacity, smacking two doubles with a pair of RBI. 

Those numbers would be even higher if not for a Milwaukee official scorer who ruled La Stella's hard-hit grounder an error Sunday, though La Stella's aforementioned teammate clearly disagreed.

Last year, La Stella posted a ridiculous .290/.488/.419 slash line (.908 OPS) as a pinch-hitter, going 9-for-31 with four doubles, seven RBI and 10 walks against only five strikeouts.

"He knows what he's doing," Maddon said. "He knows how to do it. He doesn't try to force anything. He's not trying to appease me or anybody else with his preparation. He just prepares, which I love.

"He's a different cat. He's a very valuable commodity in today's game, in the National League, especially because of his pinch-hitting abilities. I anticipate and believe he will remain this way for several years to come."

Once upon a time, Maddon said La Stella may be the best pure hitter on the Cubs roster, using that as rationale for why the infielder was hitting fifth in the 2015 wild-card playoff in Pittsburgh.

Then there's the uber-popular "3 a.m." nickname that's taken on a life of its own after a comment Maddon made in spring training a few years ago, saying La Stella could wake up at 3 a.m. and hit line drives all over the field.

And there was the hilarious prank war between La Stella and Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer in spring training, showing there were absolutely no hard feelings after the August 2016 incident where La Stella left the organization and nearly quit baseball.

While the rest of baseball is focused on launch angles and strikeouts are coming in record numbers, La Stella has stayed true to who he is as a hitter, sticking with a throwback style that makes him something of a unicorn in today's game.

He struck out only 18 times in 73 games last year, ranking as the 17th-toughest hitter to strike out in the game.

Among players with at least 150 plate appearances in 2017, La Stella was one of just seven MLB hitters who had more walks than strikeouts, joining the ranks of NL MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto and Anthony Rendon, among others.

"He has such an old-school swing," Maddon said. "He's tension-free, he's flat through the zone, he doesn't try to lift anything, he's got a good eye, he'll work a count.

"He's unique in a lot of ways, meaning that he's not into the launch angles, not trying to power the ball. He's into using the whole field. He's got a really great base and he doesn't overthink it, that's for sure.

"He doesn't swing too often. He's not out there taking extra BP. He doesn't overanalyze himself. For me, a lot of old school tenants about the way he hits and I think we all appreciate that."