By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski recently said that in-game management is not as important as other aspects of being a manager in the major leagues. Many thought he sounded silly, especially when two of baseball’s best in-game tacticians ended up meeting each other in the World Series.
But if the Chicago Cubs’ epic win in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series on Wednesday night proved anything, it’s that Dombrowski has a point.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon did everything he could to blow the series for the Cubs, making a series of head-scratching moves that showed a manager can’t really win a game – but if he piles up enough bad moves, he could certainly lose one.
Maddon certainly would have made himself look like a genius if Aroldis Chapman came in and closed the door on the Cleveland Indians in the eighth inning of Game 7, but the manager brought the closer in to pitch 1.1 innings on Tuesday night in Game 6 with the Cubs winning 7-2 at the time. It was frustratingly predictable, then, that Chapman would lose a few ticks off his fastball (which still clocked in the upper-90s) and eventually allow a game-tying home run to the immortal Rajai Davis.
It’s a testament to Chapman’s talent and mental toughness that he came back out for the ninth inning and retired the side in order. But that, right there, is the essence of managing a professional baseball team. Maddon led a confident clubhouse environment that had a super-talented baseball team playing at its best from wire-to-wire. The Cubs were also a resilient bunch, as they came back to win Game 4 of the NLDS against the Giants then overcame a precarious 2-1 deficit in the NLCS against the Dodgers before completing their comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series.
That kind of confidence, resilience, and toughness on the part of the players is an identity that you can reasonably credit to the manager for fostering. The Cubs did not, however, win because of Maddon’s creative in-game tactics or unorthodox use of his pitching staff.
Indians manager Terry Francona did a masterful job with his in-game management throughout the major league playoffs, but Cleveland ultimately stalled out as the previously impenetrable Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller came up short in Game 7. Still, Francona approached Game 7 calmly and didn’t do anything too drastic, while Maddon practically tried to lose the game with his in-game over-managing.
The head-scratching began when Maddon removed starter Kyle Hendricks in the bottom of the fifth inning. Hendricks had retired seven batters in a row before walking Carlos Santana, which gave Maddon the quick hook to bring in Jon Lester. By extension, Maddon also had to make a switch at catcher as he brought in 39-year-old David Ross.
This was when Cubs fans started to squirm. Ross appeared to get his bell rung on a pitch from Lester that bounced in the dirt and hit him in his catcher’s mask, leaving him slow to recover to get the loose ball that ultimately plated two runs for Cleveland.
Ross redeemed himself in the next half-inning with a solo home run off Miller, but the previous inning was a calamity that probably didn’t need to happen – and probably would not have happened without Maddon’s meddling.
Arguably the most egregious call of the night for Maddon goes to the call for a squeeze bunt with two strikes and Javier Baez at the plate. There was a runner on third with one out, but there was no need for Baez to go for a bunt with two strikes rather than simply try to get a base hit. Baez bunted foul for the strikeout, killing any easy chance the Cubs could have had to scratch the potential winning run across the board.
The Cubs did ultimately prevail, as longtime Maddon serviceman Ben Zobrist drove in the game-winning run with a line-drive double in the top of the 10th inning to bail out his venerable manager.
If any fanbase should know that a team can overcome subpar in-game managing if it’s talented and confident enough, it’s Red Sox Nation. John Farrell’s bumbling with NL rules in the 2013 World Series looked ominous when the Red Sox lost Game 3 to the Cardinals in St. Louis, but the team eventually overcame those mistakes. The 2016 edition of the Red Sox didn’t fall well short of their goal because of Farrell’s shoddy in-game management, but because Farrell didn’t have the Red Sox ready to play its best baseball as a team while Francona did.
The Cubs won Game 7 on the strength of their powerful offense, which woke up in the final three games of the season, and on the resilience of Lester and Chapman to battle through tough innings. Maddon deserves credit for keeping the clubhouse together and creating a confident atmosphere for a team that didn’t seem to care about silly 108-year-old curses. But his in-game managing took a step back Wednesday night and the Cubs won in spite of it.
A winning baseball team should have a manager who knows how to handle in-game tactics, and for the most part, Maddon does. But even when the in-game moves go south, your team is only as good as your players. Maddon and the Cubs just proved that.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.