“Ten times out of ten.”
If you were wondering if Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had any second thoughts about the matchup he chose for the eighth inning Saturday night, the one between Joe Blanton and pinch hitter Miguel Montero, the one that decided the Cubs’ 8-4 victory over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLCS, that was his answer.
No uncertainty. No second-guessing. That was the button Roberts wanted to push.
Ten times out of ten.
And this time it blew up in his face, in spectacular, soul-crushing fashion.
All the machinations, all the maneuvering, got the Dodgers to bases loaded, two outs and 0-and-2 to Montero, who had been 1-for-22 without an extra-base hit in that count this season. A pair of intentional walks, one to Jason Heyward and a second to pinch hitter Chris Coghlan, did exactly what Roberts had in mind. They forced Cubs manager Joe Maddon to remove Aroldis Chapman after one inning and opt for pinch hitter Montero with the score tied at 3.
It was all going according to plan, as risky as Roberts’ scheme was. His Dodgers had tied it in the top of the eighth against Chapman, with Adrian Gonzalez ripping a 102-mph fastball into centerfield for the tying two-out, two-run single. But after Ben Zobrist’s leadoff double, a rocket that re-energized the Wrigley crowd, Roberts had to navigate his way his way to safety, to tiptoe through the minefield.
Blanton got Addison Russell on a groundout before intentionally walking Jason Heyward, a dice roll with the ever-dangerous Javier Baez up next. But Baez popped up on the first pitch — crisis averted — and another intentional walk to Coghlan brought up Montero.
Roberts still had two lefthanders in the bullpen — no, Clayton Kershaw wasn’t available — but he knew that Maddon would go with Willson Contreras in that spot. The manager chose Montero.
“As long as you think through things and put guys in the best position to have success on your team, you can do the right things — but they don’t always work out,” Roberts said. “I think the process for me, I felt really good about it. And I would do the same thing over again, ten times out of ten. And he took a good swing on an 0-and-2 pitch. It’s going to happen. That’s baseball.”
And when Dexter Fowler homered on the next pitch, the Cubs had an 8-3 lead.
Over in the other dugout, look at the night Maddon was having. He pulled Jon Lester after 77 pitches in the sixth inning because he wanted to use pinch hitter Jorge Soler to try to drive in Baez from second and pad the 3-1 lead. Lester clearly was irritated, turning back to the dugout with the bat in his hand, and Soler grounded to short. The gambit failed and left Maddon still nine outs away from a Game 1 victory.
So Maddon tried to use Chapman for six of those outs, but only after winding up in a bases-loaded, none-out hole in the top of the eighth. In a meltdown similar to the Game 3 loss to the Giants in the Division Series, Chapman whiffed Corey Seager (101 mph) and Yasiel Puig (103) before Gonzalez stung him with the tying single.
Gonzalez turned around a 102-mph fastball. So did that mean Maddon made a mistake stretching out Chapman with the bases jammed? Or did Gonzalez just come through in a huge spot, which the elite players are capable of doing?
That’s the eternal question. And one that keeps coming up daily during this remarkable 2016 postseason. As Maddon engaged in that eighth-inning chess match with Roberts — a rookie manager — he had to think along, to put himself inside the head of his Dodgers counterpart.
“That was the right thing to do,” Maddon said. “I probably would have done the same thing he did.”
But when it’s all over, the only thing that distinguishes the right move from the wrong move is the final score. And in this NLCS, the Cubs have a 1-0 lead that easily could have gone in the other direction, with Kershaw on tap for Game 2.
Roberts was stunned that it didn’t. “I thought we were going to win it,” he said.
That was the plan, anyway.