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Dodgers 5, Cubs 2: On bullpen failure and ‘the lane’

What we feared would happen with the Cubs bullpen, happened.

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Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This play, in the end, didn’t have any impact on the result of the Cubs5-2 loss to the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.

But it’s the one everyone’s going to be talking about this morning, so let’s begin with the overturned call at the plate after Willson Contreras tagged Charlie Culberson in the seventh inning.

Here’s the play:

There is no question that the overturning of this call was correct, by rule. Here’s the full text of the rule:

Rule 7.13

A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the Umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the Umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball).

Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe.

This is commonly known as “giving the runner a lane.”

My question is this: If a catcher always has to “give the runner a lane,” how is said catcher ever going to tag a runner out? The catcher would have to go through all sorts of contortions to tag a runner who has a “lane.”

Joe Maddon got himself purposely ejected (or at least that’s the way it looked to me) coming out of the dugout and arguing after the call was overturned by the review crew. Here’s a complete transcript of his postgame comments, and here’s the most cogent part, in my view:

JOE MADDON: I saw a great baseball play. I saw Schwarber come in on a grounded ball, use his feet perfectly, make a low, great throw to the plate that could have been cut off, had we needed it to be, but did not because we chose to have it go to home plate. Perfect skip-hop, great play by Contreras. The ball kind of taking Willson towards the line, towards foul territory. He catches the ball, and his technique was absolutely 100% perfect. I could not disagree more with the interpretation of that. However, I will defend the umpires. The umpires did everything according to what they've been told, but I, from day one, have totally disagreed with the content of that rule. I think it's wrong. I think there's anybody that's played Major League or even Minor League Baseball will agree with me 100% on that. That was a beautifully done Major League play all the way around.

Incidentally, Joe’s right about Kyle Schwarber’s throw — that was excellent, a strong throw right on a perfect line.

Look, I completely get it, I understand the point of this rule, it’s to avoid having catchers AND baserunners injured.

But I also agree with Joe’s statement. This rule is going to have to be looked at by MLB’s Competition Committee again. It’s already been tweaked once; it will likely have to be adjusted again. The Competition Committee is going to be a busy group this offseason.

Now, having spent nearly 600 words talking about a play that had no effect on the outcome of this game, let’s lament together the failure of the Cubs bullpen. Most of us were happy when we found out that Hector Rondon had replaced Justin Wilson on the Cubs’ roster for this series. He entered replacing Jose Quintana to begin the sixth inning. I didn’t have a problem with this. Q had every right to be exhausted after we learned that it was his wife who had the medical issue on board the team plane to Los Angeles (fortunately, she’s fine). He threw well for four innings, then seemed to run out of gas in the fifth. So it was time for a fresh arm, and Hector certainly was that, having not thrown in a game since September 29.

It took only two pitches for that to turn into frustration; that’s how many pitches it took for Hector to turn a tie game into a 3-2 deficit. Chris Taylor smashed a home run off Rondon on that pitch, and maybe it’s time for the Cubs to stop serving up meatballs to players named “Taylor” in this postseason, no?

Before that, the Cubs had matched everything Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers had thrown at them, and perhaps been just a little bit better. Q was awesome through the first four innings, and the Cubs took a 2-0 lead in the top of the fourth when Contreras singled and Albert Almora Jr. followed with this:

Almora has been a revelation since the second half of this season began. In 59 regular-season games after the All-Star break, Almora hit .326/.331/.519 with five home runs in 129 at-bats, and in limited duty in the division series went 2-for-6 against the Nationals.

So the Cubs continued their strong hitting off Kershaw, who departed after five innings. But in the bottom of the fifth, Q faltered a bit, issuing a pair of one-out walks. Walks were the bane of the staff’s existence in the division series — 25 of them in the five-game set. And both runners scored, one on a double by Yasiel Puig, who styled as if he had hit a home run, the other on a sacrifice fly by Culberson.

Still, the game’s only tied after five innings. That didn’t last long, after the home run by Taylor off Rondon.

Still, it’s only 3-2. But it might as well have been 17-2, because the Cubs simply stopped hitting. The last Cubs baserunner was Almora. The final 18 Cubs went down in order, retired by Kershaw, Tony Cingrani, Kenta Maeda, Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.

You know, sometime during this series the Cubs are going to hit Cingrani, with whom they are quite familiar from his time with the Reds. Cingrani has a career 5.25 ERA in the regular season against the Cubs in 21 appearances (seven starts).

Saturday night, though, he was simply another in a parade of Dodgers relievers the Cubs couldn’t hit.

In addition to Rondon, Mike Montgomery had a tough outing in Game 1. He gave up a single and a walk in the sixth after replacing Rondon, then Puig homered off him in the seventh. He allowed two more hits before being replaced by John Lackey, who gave up a single to the first batter he faced, Justin Turner... and that was the hit that led to the overturned call at the plate, which was where we began here.

Bullpen failure or not, the Cubs aren’t going to win games when 18 straight hitters go down. They solved Kershaw; they’re going to have to solve the Dodgers bullpen if they’re going to win this series. Oh, and get better bullpen work themselves, too.

If you’re feeling down about this series, kindly remember this: It’s best-of-seven in this one. The TBS announcers (and thank heavens for Brian Anderson, a real baseball guy, who is so far superior to Ernie Johnson they ought to make him their No. 1 announcer) made a point of mentioning that this was the first time the Dodgers had won Game 1 of the NLCS since 1985.

Let’s have a look at that NLCS, the first one that was best-of-seven. The Dodgers won Game 1 at home... and they also won Game 2 at home. Then the Cardinals won four straight and the National League championship. This sort of thing has happened quite a number of times in postseason series.

And that’s why you don’t get too concerned about a Game 1 loss in the championship series. In general, teams without home-field advantage simply want to steal one win on the road when beginning the set. The Cubs did that in the division series; if they win Sunday night, mission accomplished.

Here’s an oddity about the Cubs’ postseason to date:

The Cubs have hit just three home runs this postseason: the two hit in Game 2 of the division series and Almora’s on Saturday night. This isn’t necessarily recommended as a way to win games; teams often do better in games when they do hit home runs. On the other hand, the Cubs got outhomered by the Nationals 6-2 and won the series, and the Dodgers got outhomered by the Diamondbacks 7-3 in their division series and swept it.

The Cubs will need to find ways to score runs no matter how they do it, obviously. And they will need to have another strong outing from Jon Lester, who has a 1.86 ERA and 0.621 WHIP in two games (9⅔ innings) this postseason. He’ll face former Cub Rich Hill in Game 2. Game time Sunday night is 6:30 p.m. CT.


Site note: Cub Tracks, which normally runs at 7 a.m. CT on Sundays, will run late this morning or early afternoon in order to include reaction from Game 1.