Last night’s 8-0 Cubs win over the Milwaukee Brewers was exactly what they needed after being shut out for 18 innings by the Marlins and the Reds. A quality start and six innings of shutout baseball was exactly what Jon Lester needed after an abysmal opening day start. A towering two run pinch hit home run on the anniversary of his major league debut (which included a home run off of none other than Carlos Zambrano, for those keeping track at home) was exactly what Jason Heyward needed.
All of these things were needed. All of these things were awesome. None of these things held a candle to the most awesome thing that happened at Wrigley North last night. The most awesome thing that happened at Wrigley North last night was a strange series of events involving Ryan Braun, Lester, the yips, and Javier Baez.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s back up a bit.
The Ballad of Baserunning: with Braun and Baez
In the first inning Lester had Braun on the ropes, down two strikes, but then Lester walked him with two out. I’ll admit I had a sense of impending doom wondering if Lester’s second start was about to go the way of his first. After all, Lester was just missing on pitches, distracted by a runner, and what if the Cubs never score again?
Right about the time I was worrying if Braun being on base would wreck Lester’s concentration, I blinked and Braun was on second. It felt like some vortex to worst case scenarios opened up. I may have said some words that Al isn’t fond out outside of game threads, so I’ll refrain from saying them here. You get the idea.
Then, one of the strangest, greatest, most ridiculous things I’ve seen in baseball happened. First, watch this series of incredible events [VIDEO]. Then I’m going to break down why I believe all this deserves its own article:
Sometimes the box score is inadequate and Ryan Braun “steals a base” doesn’t really describe what happened here. It was basically defensive indifference. He likely would have stolen this base anyway, but this was a weird stolen base. I’ve spent three years wondering why people don’t just run on Lester immediately. None of the cat and mouse nonsense we’ve seen people play dancing around first while they stare down Lester. Just get there and go.
Well, Braun did just that and it was remarkably successful. Granted, there were two outs and Lester probably didn’t expect him to run before he’d even looked up. It’s plainly obvious that none of the Cubs expected him to run immediately either:
Nothing to see here. Braun’s just a guy. Just a guy casually walking to second.
I mean. Let’s pause for a second. Lester and Anthony Rizzo might as well be twiddling their thumbs. But surely, someone, anyone on the Cubs has noticed that Ryan Braun is a third of the way to second and making a break for it right?
Look at this. Rizzo still has not moved, Addison Russell has not moved. Willson Contreras and Baez finally figure out that Braun is most of the way to second base and they alert Lester.
Here’s the thing. The Cubs defense is not bad, they were just caught totally off guard. Baez is routinely touted for being a baseball savant. Rizzo has multiple gold gloves. Contreras and Russell do outstanding things on a regular basis.
They just all missed it.
It’s so amusing that Braun is sliding here. Like, okay, guy, slide, I guess? Lester still has the ball and no intention of throwing. Javy looks like he’s thinking about moving to second and Russell has finally acknowledged that there may be a play. Rizzo has not moved.
But by all means: slide, Ryan, slide.
Seriously, tip your hat to Braun. He was on second base before anyone on the Cubs even thought to yell that he was running. It’s not just that he got a bag on Lester. The entire Cubs infield just missed it. It was so easy I’m not sure it should count as a stolen base. Hence the reason I called it defensive indifference above, but I’ll understand if the scorekeeper doesn’t feel comfortable scoring it that way in the bottom of the first.
A humbling TOOTBLAN
Braun’s initial foray into baserunning was so wildly successful that he clearly wanted another shot at it. On the very next pitch he decides to double down and head to third.
I want to pause for a second and point out the absolute folly of this move.
Braun is in scoring position at second base, he’s already done whatever damage he can do getting into Lester’s head on the basepaths. The odds that he’s going to steal home, even on Jon Lester, are infinitesimally small. But he just can’t help himself. He has to try to steal third.
This time the Cubs infield is expecting it (the mind still boggles as to why they weren’t expecting it the first time, but I digress) and Braun is thrown out on a classic TOOTBLAN. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, TOOTBLAN stands for “Thrown out on the basepaths like a nincompoop” and while there has been some healthy debate over the years as to what constitutes a TOOTBLAN, what Braun did in attempting to steal third definitely qualifies.
He ran his team out of the inning to be in slightly better scoring position with their cleanup hitter at bat. In fairness to Braun, you can tell by the look on his face that he knew it was a TOOTBLAN.
The successful bounce throw
In spring training Lester bounced a throw to Rizzo and BCB momentarily lost it. I admit I was very concerned. It was later revealed that Lester was trying this out on purpose. The thought was that it was preferable to have him bounce the throw than to have it airmailed over Rizzo’s head. I vaguely remember making a post about physics and how baseballs don’t work like basketballs. I can’t remember if that was here or on Twitter.
Who knows if my observation about physics will hold up, but the bounce throw from Lester to Bryant went precisely as planned. Braun tried to grab an easy bag. Lester bounced one into Bryant, KB dug it out and Braun was out.
I’ve added an informal “success of the bounce throw” tracker to my signature until future notice. It’s currently 1.000. I’d be happy to be wrong about my initial concerns about the bounce throw. After all, I’m not a physicist.
The looks on their faces
Lester was not amused by Braun’s antics, and it was sort of awesome to see the long look he gave Braun as he walked off the mound. It’s the cold, hard, stare of a competitor who would like to wipe the foolish grin off of Braun’s face.
Part of me believes he channeled that feeling for the rest of an excellent start.
To his credit, Ryan Braun seems to realize pretty quickly that the gig is up. He’s been caught on the base paths. He’s been caught badly. He’s been caught by a bounce throw. He’s been caught giving up the inning with two out and the cleanup hitter at the plate.
He obviously knows all of this is true and he’s still able to smile about it, because the score is tied at 0-0. He’s pleased with himself for his previous stolen base despite the TOOTBLAN. He’s pleased with himself in the face of a scowling Lester who is about to exact his revenge on the Brewers.
For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, Javy inserted himself in this mix with one of my favorite screen caps I’ve ever seen. I would give anything to know what Javier Baez said to Ryan Braun at this moment:
You can almost imagine what they are joking about there as Baez heads off the field. It would have been funny even if nothing else had happened in this game, but the universe works in mysterious ways, because Javy wasted no time making that screen cap not just fun, but epic.
Baserunning 101 with El Mago
Javier Baez does ridiculous things. Last night he decided to add baserunning school to the list.
After driving in two with a single in the top of the third inning he found himself standing on first base when none other than Jon Lester hit a squibbler past second base. It promptly died in the outfield. As chance would have it, Lorenzo Cain bobbled the ball. What happened next is ridiculous. Somehow Javy made it from first to home on a ball that made it about 12 feet deep in the outfield. This is barely a hit, but because baseball is baseball and Javy is Javy this happened instead [VIDEO].
...right before I stepped on third base I turned back and he bobbled the ball, so I just kept going. And they let me, you know, run the bases how I want to. I was having fun out there...in that moment I was just reacting to the play and hustling down the line.
It’s worth noting that he blew past a clear sign to stop at third. It’s also worth noting that his manager didn’t seem to mind. Here’s Joe Maddon on Javy’s baserunning, also from the above video:
He’s got eyes in the back of his head, he’s going to make a great parent.
Lost in all of this drama is another absolutely stellar El Mago slide. Check out this slide and understand that by all rights he should be out. No one should be able to score from first on that ball, he blew through the sign, and this shouldn’t be particularly close.
And yet, Javy things:
At least one person at Wrigley North appreciated the slide as much as I did and commented on it at the end of the game, here’s Jon Lester (also from the video link above):
He’s gonna play the game aggressively and it always seems to work out for him, you know? I think the slide was even more impressive than him reading that ball.
A lot of teams in the last few years have wanted to start a running game on Jon Lester. Last night in Milwaukee the Brewers started out with one of the strongest plays possible against a flatfooted Cubs defense. They pushed their luck too far, however, and one of the savviest baserunners I’ve ever seen decided to put on a clinic.
The running game in the first match up of 2018 between the Brewers and the Cubs can best be described as follows: Two men enter, one man leave.
And that one man was Javier Baez.