CHICAGO – You could make the case that by putting a pinch-hitter on deck to hit for his pitcher in the fifth inning on Friday night, Joe Maddon had baited Terry Francona into pulling the trigger on Andrew Miller a little too early.
After all, the game was 0-0, and as boldly as he has managed his bullpen, and especially Miller, throughout the post-season, Francona had only used his X-factor when he had a lead to protect.
Furthermore, in a National League ballpark, there was at least a decent chance Francona would have to hit for Miller before he really wanted to take him out of the game.
So Maddon might have been feeling good about the little chess game with the opposing manager, especially when Francona did have to hit for Miller in the top of the seventh, when he was still hoping to get three more outs from his lefthander.
But then pinch-hitter Coco Crisp delivered an RBI single, the Indians’ bullpen managed to get the last nine outs even without help from Miller, and in what has been a regular occurrence this post-season, it all worked out nicely for Francona.
After all these years, Francona knows his way around the dugout. He has always had a reputation for being one of the better managers in the game, mostly because he relates so well to players, but he rarely gets outmanaged during games.
On this night, obviously he needed Crisp to come through for it to work out as it did, but he said he wanted Miller in that game in the fifth inning to keep the Cubs from grabbing the momentum and turning Wrigely Field into a noise madhouse.
“That kind of thing is important,” he said Saturday. “I thought it was important to keep the Cubs from getting the lead.”
By night’s end, in a game that had a lot of moving pieces, with double-switches and NL-style baseball that Francona manages only in inter-league games, Francona was joking that he was almost out of players.
“If the game had gone extra innings we were going to have to have (Corey) Kluber pinch-hit at some point,” the Indians’ manager said. “There was a lot going on.”
Indians’ pitching coach Mickey Callaway watched it all from up-close and marveled at Francona’s thought process, though not without joking about how frenzied things got with all the maneuvering.
“He almost used guys who weren’t even on the roster, it was great,” Callaway told reporters afterward. “There’s no better manager in baseball than him. I’ve learned so much from him. It’s just fun to watch him do it during the game.”
The match-up of managers is no small matter in this series. Both Francona and Maddon have reputation as being among the best in baseball, but only the Indians’ manager has a couple of championship notches in his belt. In fact, for all the praise Maddon gets for being innovative, especially in creating the a loose, fun atmosphere for a team carrying the weight of all the bad history of this franchise, he might well come under some scrutiny if he loses this World Series.
It was one thing to get swept in the NLCS last October, when the Cubs were dominated by Mets’ pitching _ and don’t think Terry Collins didn’t enjoy laying one the more celebrated Maddon, his former bench coach in Anaheim _ but it would be another to lose a World Series in which is team is considered a heavy favorite.
Not that Maddon should be held responsible for the Cubs’ inconsistent offense, which has been shut out four times in this post-season. But he has done a lot of juggling with his lineup, as he did throughout the season, and he may need to push the right buttons to get his team over the hump.
In addition, some baseball people think he is tinkering with Aroldis Chapman too much, trying to get multiple innings out of a guy who Alex Rodriguez recently said on TV is very much “routine-oriented” to getting three-out saves.
Not that Maddon has made obvious mistakes with his strategy, but it’s fair to say there is more pressure on him than Francona in the nightly chess game.
For now, at least, the perception is that Francona is on a roll. But he’s also smart enough to deflect any such praise. On Saturday he joked that he still wasn’t sure how he wound up looking at potentially needing to use Kluber as a pinch-hitter.
“That wasn’t how we drew it up, believe me,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just as you go, you kind of have your guys ready for each situation and then you react to it and do the best you can.”
Maddon says much the same thing when asked about strategy. But at least for the moment, Francona has had all the right answers.
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