NEW YORK — In a two-run loss, a two-run swing is by definition a determining factor in the outcome. When it comes in the playoffs, it’s magnified even more.
We can argue that Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester shouldn’t give up home runs in a tight playoff contest — he gave up two solo shots — but the focus should be on the little things which altered the course of the Cubs’ 4-2 defeat to the New York Mets in Game 1 of the National League Championships Series on Saturday night.
Two key sequences prevented the Cubs from scoring a run while adding one to the Mets’ lead. The Mets prevailed in the game because they did those little things to win.
“It’s the playoffs,” catcher David Ross said afterwards. “Every inch matters. You have to make plays, and they made more plays than we did.”
Play No. 1: The Cubs finally got to Matt Harvey in the fifth inning after he mowed down the first 12 batters of the game. After hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch on a 0-2 count, Harvey was in the stretch for the first time. Starlin Castro promptly hit a rocket to center field that found its way over the head of Juan Lagares for a run-scoring double to tie the game at 1-1, but could Castro have made it to third base with no outs?
“I thought he was going to be right on it,” Castro said of Lagares. “I stopped a little bit at home plate. After that, I ran hard and Rizzo scored.”
Kudos to Castro for admitting he didn’t hustle right away, but that hesitation may have cost him a base and a run — and, who knows, maybe even the game. Harvey was on the ropes a little bit at that point but he got Jorge Soler to ground out to third, leaving Castro at second base. Javier Baez then singled through the hole between short and third, and again Castro hesitated. This time he was justified.
“Ground ball with less than two outs to the third-base side, first step you have to go back,” Castro said.
After that step back to second, Castro reversed his momentum toward third, where third-base coach Gary Jones waved him home. The only problem is that the base hit ended up in Yoenis Cespedes‘ glove. There might not be a better arm in baseball.
“I’m not really surprised that he sent me, but that guy has a cannon,” Castro said. “I couldn’t do anything with that.”
Castro was out rather easily. If he had not been sent home, the Cubs would have had men on first and third with one out and catcher David Ross at the plate. Behind him was pitcher Jon Lester.
“You can say possibly not send the runner, but we did and it was a good baseball play on their part,” manager Joe Maddon said. “With Ross coming up there was possibly different things we can do, but Jonesy [Gary Jones] has been aggressive all year. He’s been a great third-base coach all year and I never second-guess him.”
Analysis: Maddon brought up the idea of not sending Castro unsolicited, so it was something on Maddon’s mind. And his mention of “different things we can do” is an indication maybe some small ball was in order if Ross got up. Of course forcing the defense to make a play is a good strategy, but there is a reason scouting reports are used on outfielders and everyone in baseball knows Cespedes makes that throw in his sleep. More than anything, Jones should have recognized Castro’s hesitation since the ball was hit on the ground to the left side. Once he took a step back to second, sending him home was a mistake. The inning ended in a 1-1 tie, but the Mets scored a run in each of the next three innings. If Castro isn’t thrown out at the plate, the rest of the night could be different.
Play 2: With the Cubs trailing 3-1 in the seventh inning, Kyle Schwarber caught a fly ball in shallow left field with Juan Lagares on third base and one out. A good throw home had Lagares dead to rights, but catcher Miguel Montero caught the ball on a long hop behind home plate and couldn’t get back in time to tag the runner before he crossed.
“I didn’t want to short hop,” Montero said. “It was a tough play to stay on the plate and make the tag. If I stayed on the plate, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t catch it so it was going to look even worse.”
Maddon and Schwarber defended Montero’s handling of the play.
“I’m all for the catcher getting to the front corner of the plate and taking the plate away from the base runner,” Maddon said. “The throw took him there. … He felt like he had to be there because of the throw.”
Schwarber added: “Coming from a catcher, there’s not much he can do there. That’s a tough play all around.”
Analysis: If Montero didn’t think he could make the catch on the short hop then the play was dead anyway, but on a shallow fly ball one way or another, the Cubs have to get an out there — just as the Mets did on their chance from left field. Maybe Montero should have just went for it, trying for the short hop then the tag because the alternative developed too late.
Add a run to the Cubs’ total and subtract one from the Mets’, and maybe the outcome is different. Of course, that presumes the Cubs get Castro home from third with fewer than two outs, something that was a big problem in the regular season. It also presumes Montero holds onto the ball and properly makes the tag. With little success off of Harvey on the night, the Cubs needed to be perfect on these plays but were far from it. Now they’re down 1-0 in the series.