The Cincinnati Reds took a tightly-contested series opener from the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field Friday afternoon. After falling behind early, the Cubs scored single runs in four consecutive innings beginning in the third but left the bases loaded in the sixth and never threatened again.
The story of this game was a series of poor choices and poorer execution on both sides in the late innings. Without being ugly from a purely aesthetic perspective, the game was rife with errors in judgment.
It began in the eighth inning, when Cubs manager Mike Quade laid himself open to exploitation with an ill-advised double switch. He lifted left-hander Sean Marshall for Kerry Wood, and at the same time, replaced Alfonso Soriano in left field with Tyler Colvin. Soriano had batted in the bottom of the seventh, and by inserting Colvin, Quade relieved himself of the need to pinch-hit in the following half inning. By doing so, he bought himself an extra inning out of Wood in a tight game.
Fine. That logic is sound. Colvin, however, was the wrong man to bring in. For one thing, his wOBA stood at .230 at the start of play. For another–and here’s the key problem–Jeff Baker remained available on the Cubs bench.
Baker’s wOBA for the year to this point is .376, and while that may be a tad higher than his true skill level, he absolutely mashes left-handed pitching. The Reds’ best relief pitcher, and the one who by all means ought to have entered the game in the bottom of the eighth, is a lethal southpaw of whom you might have heard: Aroldis Chapman. Bringing in Colvin rather than Baker with the specter of Chapman coming on was sheer folly by Quade.
Fortunately, that particular mistake quickly came out in the wash of tactical mismanagement that defined this game. Like Quade, former Cubs and current Reds manager Dusty Baker is a poor tactician. He proved it as the bottom of the eighth began, calling upon Nick Masset rather than Chapman. Carlos Pena, a dangerous left-handed hitter, led off the frame, and Colvin was due up third, yet Baker (perhaps unwilling to use Chapman on back-to-back days, though he has done it four times already this season) elected to have right-handed and homer-prone Masset face the powerful first baseman in a situation the live scoreboard tells us had a Leverage Index of 1.78.
Poor calls by umpire Victor Carapazza saved Masset in the eighth, as blatant mistakes gave the hard-throwing righty crucial strikes against both Pena and Soto. Wood mowed down the Reds in the ninth, setting up the top of the Cubs order to face Reds closer Francisco Cordero. Kosuke Fukudome drew a well-earned walk despite another iffy strike call, which brought Darwin Barney to the plate with no one out.
This time, the strategy was sound. Barney immediately showed bunt, and whatever you think of the sacrifice on principle, that was the right choice: Barney, like Starlin Castro (due up after him), is an extreme singles and ground-ball hitter, and moving Fukudome into scoring position for Castro was certainly the right call.
Unfortunately, Barney (that bastion of fundamentals and the evolution of talking dinosaurs) suddenly forgot how to lay down a bunt. On three consecutive deliveries, he pulled his bat back. Two of the three were perfectly buntable belt-high strikes. With the proper course taken out of the equation, he then had no choice: Barney laced a line drive back through the box, but Francisco snagged it and threw to first to double off Fukudome. It was all but over. Castro flew out to seal the Cubs’ fate.
We all know how rigid Baker can be with his bullpen management, and that he rarely embraces the optimal in-game strategy. But just a month into Quade’s Cubs tenure, he is looking more and more like an unenviable blend of Baker’s poor maneuvering and Lou Piniella’s poor personnel management. Not to sound alarmist, but it may not be too early to question the choice to hire Quade this past winter. The team could easily be 17-14 right now, rather than 14-17, if not for mismanagement. As for Barney, the hype is beginning to wane, and the way seems increasingly clear for the skipper to move Barney down in the batting order.