CHICAGO — The nerves of even the most seasoned pros get jangled during one-run games.
Those seem to be the only kind the Giants and Cubs play when they wind up facing each other.
The Cubs’ 1-0 win Friday night to open the NL Division Series was the sixth straight between them decided by a single run, dating back to the end of a four-game series in San Francisco in May. They played four more here in September with the Cubs winning three. If you thought there were no tricks left up either manager’s sleeves by now, well, you haven’t been watching the Cubs’ Joe Maddon closely enough.
Both he and Giants counterpart Bruce Bochy figured correctly that runs would be at a premium, especially with starters Johnny Cueto and Jon Lester rested and ready. Cueto was masterful early, holding the Cubs hitless through the first three innings. Lester was less so, giving up a single to every leadoff hitter over the same stretch, including Conor Gillaspie to start the third.
After the first two leadoff hits yielded nothing, the Giants were getting twitchy about cashing one of them in.
“We’re not a team to sit back and wait for the long ball,” Bochy said afterward. “In a game like this, you got to try to find ways to score.”
Whether Maddon sensed that or not, he’d already prepared for just such an eventuality. He had Anthony Rizzo exchange his first baseman’s glove for an infielder’s model and positioned him alongside the mound in case Cueto, the next batter, was going to bunt.
After a few run-throughs in spring training, the Cubs used the same defensive alignment at least three times in the regular season. Every umpiring crew has leeway in how they interpret the rule about how close to the base the first baseman has to be, so Maddon checked with the crew before the game. To take out the guesswork, he also had Rizzo swap gloves and stationed second baseman Javy Baez near first.
“I talked to them before the game and it’s clearly ambiguous regarding the glove. I still will argue the point, even though Rizzo is playing there, he’s still the first baseman. It’s a semantical argument. Probably some lawyers put this whole thing together,” Maddon laughed. “But we’re happy to change gloves, it just takes a little longer.”
Finally, Maddon signaled catcher David Ross to call a pitchout to Cueto.
“That was just to see what they might do against our bunt defense,” Ross said. “It wasn’t a set play to pick (Gillaspie off), but I saw him take an extra shuffle step. It’s nice to have the freedom to let it fly.”
Throwing down was Ross’ call and even though he played in only 67 games — the 39-year-old Ross is Lester’s designated catcher and occasionally a late-inning replacement — he never hesitated.
“We have a lot of good athletes that can move around and play different positions. I feel really comfortable throwing to any of these guys all year and believe me, I had some really crappy throws to first,” Ross chuckled. “But they’ve picked me up all year long.’
On this night Baez did it again. He snared the throw alongside the bag and made a swipe tag as Gillaspie dove back to first.
“Obviously I wasn’t expecting that,” Gillaspie said evenly, “but I mean, we were trying to create a throw over there or trying to get something stirred up to create an opportunity for ourselves.
“It’s smart,” he conceded a moment later. “It’s good play.”
It also a play that more than a few Cubs had never seen until they began playing for Maddon.
“Never,” All-Star third-baseman Kris Bryant confirmed. “Joe’s certainly an out-of-the-box thinker. If it was me in the batter’s box and I saw Rizzo standing 20 feet away from me, I’m not sure what I’d be thinking.”
All Maddon asks is that they continue to think. One-run games are more about luck than the measure of a team, but the manager wants them ready to respond, whatever the situation. So he might start Bryant in the outfield, have one of his bullpen pitchers play there late in a game or simply make a pass through the dugout in a tight game repeating mantras like “Focus on process” or “Try not to suck,” a catchphrase he went so far as to print on T-shirts that have become all the rage in the city.
Too bad “Keep Calm and Carry On” was already taken.