Joe Maddon has used unorthodox strategies for almost his entire managerial career.
The surprise start of Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng Thursday night against the Mets was one of those strategies. He’d done similar things with good results with David Price and Matt Moore as Rays manager, so he, and Theo & Co., figured it might work again.
It nearly blew up in Joe’s face and hurt the Cubs, and I was especially mystified by the choice of Taylor Davis to start at catcher. I mean, I get it, Tseng might have put together a good start, but in order to do that I think you have to have an experienced catcher handle him, not just the guy who “caught all but one of his starts at Iowa.” I wasn’t alone in this thinking:
Watching this, you'd almost think a Triple-A pitcher is throwing to a 5th-string catcher. But that can't be right in a pennant race.— Matt Clapp (@TheBlogfines) September 15, 2017
I’d be a lot more upset about all that if the Cubs bats hadn’t crushed Mets pitching for the third straight night, producing a 14-6 thrashing that provided (along with an important win) these fun facts:
39 runs in a three-game series is our most since 1987 (40 vs. HOU).— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 15, 2017
We scored 14+ in back-to-back home games for the first time since 1944. pic.twitter.com/U3rxAzIo0W
#Cubs: first time scoring 14 runs or more in consecutive games since July 20-21, 2003 (16-2 at FLA, 15-6 at ATL)— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 15, 2017
Since we know the result of this game was a good one, let’s go back and look at the first three innings of Tseng’s big-league career, and they were not good.
He walked the first batter he faced, Jose Reyes, allowed a stolen base (Davis had zero chance of throwing out Reyes), then dropped a toss from Anthony Rizzo on a routine ground ball, allowing Reyes to take third. A sacrifice fly made it 1-0 Mets, then Tseng hit Dominic Smith on a 1-2 pitch. Davis seemed to have trouble doing what should be the most basic task of a catcher: catching the ball.
Pretty eventful first inning, but at least it’s only 1-0. Whoops, that didn’t last long. A leadoff single in the second was followed by two strikeouts, then a single and double plated two runs for a 3-0 Mets lead.
The Cubs, though, would not let that stand. Kyle Schwarber bunted his way on to lead off the bottom of the second and Javier Baez singled him to third. Jason Heyward’s ground ball made it 3-1 and that brought up Davis:
First MLB hit for Taylor Davis and d'Arnaud throws the ball away. pic.twitter.com/aonkZfd4YF— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 15, 2017
That was Davis’ first big-league hit, a dribbler, and then Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud... well, I’m not quite sure what his intentions were with that baseball, but it found itself flung in the general direction of right field. (Cue “Benny Hill” music.) That made it 3-2 and Tseng, who was 10-for-40 with four doubles in his minor-league career, hit a sharp grounder to shortstop to tie the game. Fun fact:
Jen-Ho Tseng: first #Cubs starting pitcher with RBI in MLB Debut since Shawn Boskie 5/20/1990— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 15, 2017
That’s all good! The two homers Tseng allowed leading off the third: Not good. I had the sense I was watching a spring-training split-squad game and some guy wearing uniform No. 97 was going to come in to relieve Tseng.
Rizzo led off the bottom of the third inning:
Anthony Rizzo home run! #32 pic.twitter.com/hhsHaaPU8C— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 15, 2017
Rizzo’s 32nd homer of the season tied his career high, set in 2014, and made it 5-4.
Mercifully, Joe replaced Tseng (70 pitches, 45 strikes) with Mike Montgomery in the fourth.
But wait. Wasn’t part of the point of starting Tseng in this game to give Montgomery (who was originally scheduled to start Thursday) the night off so he’d be available against the Cardinals? That’s the way I understood it, anyway.
Alex Avila — who should have started this game at catcher — came in along with Montgomery, who dispatched the Mets 1-2-3 in the fourth. One of the outs in that inning:
Nice bare handed play by Kris Bryant. pic.twitter.com/kCvNYkFjAM— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 15, 2017
Remind you of anything? (Hint: “This is gonna be a tough play...”)
Avila started the last of the fourth with a walk, and Montgomery singled, his fifth hit of the season. (PSST! That’s two more hits than Daniel Vogelbach has this year.) Jon Jay doubled in Avila to tie the game, then another double by Kris Bryant gave the Cubs a 7-5 lead. That was it for Mets starter Seth Lugo, but it wasn’t the end for Cubs fun in the fourth. Rizzo doubled in Bryant to make it 8-5, and then Anthony stole third, his second steal of the game. (!) It was the second two-steal game of his career, and he now leads the club in steals with 10.
The steal allowed him to score on Ian Happ’s fly ball to right, and it was 9-5 Cubs.
Montgomery allowed a couple of hits in the fifth, but helped himself when he induced a comebacker to start a 1-6-3 double play:
Sweet double play by Montgomery and Baez. pic.twitter.com/lzmbsS8fU5— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 15, 2017
Then Montgomery had a 1-2-3 sixth, so his two innings comprised 35 pitches. That makes him probably unavailable until Saturday.
Anyway, the Cubs then let loose on a couple more hapless Mets relievers in the bottom of the sixth. Jay dumped a bloop single into right and Bryant walked leading off the inning. After a pair of strikeouts, Albert Almora Jr. batted for Schwarber:
2 more RBI's off the bench for Albert Almora. pic.twitter.com/CG58hc8RyZ— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 15, 2017
Now it’s 10-5. Fun fact time again!
Albert Almora last 4 PA (starting w/ most recent)— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 15, 2017
2-run double (tonight)
3-run triple (last night)
3-run HR (last night)
Javier Baez reached on an error and then Heyward absolutely crushed this baseball:
Heyward’s 10th home run of the season gave him 52 RBI, which is three more than he had last year — in 39 fewer games. The five-run sixth, the Cubs’ second five-run inning of the evening, completed their scoring.
Brian Duensing threw two uneventful innings and Felix Pena came in for the eighth and ninth. In the ninth, he allowed a leadoff double, followed by a run-scoring single by pinch-hitter Tomas Nido, the first hit of Nido’s big-league career. Nido took second on defensive indifference, and after Pena struck out Brandon Nimmo, Phillip Evans hit a little dribbler down the third-base line. Nido never stopped running because it appeared no one was covering the plate. And then:
Wow what a way to end the game, ha! CUBS WIN! pic.twitter.com/nv3Sr98PJn— ⓂarcusD (@_MarcusD2_) September 15, 2017
A wacky game like this? That’s about the only logical way it could have ended.
Circling back to the start of this game: What will the Cubs do with Jen-Ho Tseng? He clearly has talent, but putting him in important pennant-race games... probably not the best idea. The Cubs obviously hope Jake Arrieta will be back in time to start one of the four games against the Brewers in Milwaukee next weekend (and then probably one of the four vs. the Cardinals in St. Louis), but that’s by no means a sure thing. After John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana start the three games this weekend vs. the Cardinals at Wrigley, Jon Lester should be lined up to start the first game of the series vs. the Rays in Tampa. The next turn for Tseng could come up after that, but given the Cubs’ off day Monday, Lackey could go Wednesday in Tampa on normal rest.
As noted above, the Cubs scored 39 runs against the Mets in the three games, against a pitching staff not much better than Triple-A level. The upcoming series against the Cardinals will not be nearly that easy, not against Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn. On the other hand, as Rizzo says:
"We're really familiar," Anthony Rizzo said of the Cardinals showdown. "We see (Carlos) Martinez, (Michael) Wacha and (Lance) Lynn all the time. We've seen them a lot. We know what they have. We know their bullpen, and on the other side they know us."
All true, and the Cubs have actually done pretty well against those guys and the rest of the St. Louis staff. A series preview is coming up at 9 a.m. CT this morning. Friday’s matchup of Martinez vs. Lackey (who usually throws well against his old team) should be a good one. Game time: 1:20 p.m. CT, weather’s supposed to be gorgeous. Game preview: 11:30 a.m. CT.