On the Decision to Reserve Wade Davis and Instead Roll with John Lackey in the 9th Inning

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On the Decision to Reserve Wade Davis and Instead Roll with John Lackey in the 9th Inning

Chicago Cubs

“I really just needed him [Wade Davis] for the save tonight,” Joe Maddon explained after last night’s game. “He had limited pitches. It was one inning only, and in these circumstances you don’t get him up and then don’t get him in. So if we had caught the lead, he would have pitched. That’s it.”

That might be it for the explanation, but, knowing the culture of sports commentary and analysis, it will be far from “it” when it comes to the deserved dissection of a managerial decision that seemed inexcusable in the moment, and has only barely been upgraded to shocking after a night of tortured sleep.

Setting aside the possibility that something was actively wrong with Davis and Maddon is providing cover in his comments (a possibility, but we have to take Maddon at his word and not indulge conspiracy theories until and unless we know more), here’s how I could best defend Maddon’s decision in the 9th inning if I had to:

With the decision already made that Davis would not be able to get into an inning, sit down between innings, and then come back out for more work, starting the 9th inning with a Brian Duensing match-up and then going to John Lackey was modestly defensible. The meat of the Dodgers’ order was not due up until the following inning, at which point you could use Davis in an even higher-leverage moment … if things went smoothly in the 9th.

On paper, that’s actually a good series of decisions. Having Davis start that 9th inning probably would have been a misallocation of resources compared to leverage.

But here’s where it all falls apart for me. Once Brian Duensing walked Yasiel Puig to lead off the frame and he was bunted over to second base, the game was seriously imperiled. That’s the winning run there in scoring position, with just one out, and the lineup about to turn over to the top. At that moment, Davis should have entered the game. Going any other route did not properly appreciate the peril of that situation, and was a mistake. Joe Maddon made a mistake. It happens to all of us, but I don’t think it serves anyone’s interest to hide the ball here.

You can say – as Joe Maddon did after the game – that the real problem was the lack of offense and the solitary run the Cubs scored, but that misses the point in at least two ways: (1) there can be more than one “real problem” in a game; and (2) by failing to extend the game in the 9th inning, the Cubs’ bats weren’t given a chance to score additional runs in extra innings.

On that second point, here’s a kick in the stones if you’re ready for it: Kenley Jansen was pinch hit for in that 9th inning. He was out of the game if it went to the 10th.

The Cubs let the Dodgers finish that game on their terms, and that really stings.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

(A moment to give all appropriate credit to Yasiel Puig for being patient, to Chris Taylor for working a great plate appearance, and to Justin Turner for not missing a meatball.)

So, then, circling back to the decision not to use Davis there mid-inning in the 9th. A decision was apparently made in advance of the game that Davis would be available only in a true one-inning save type situation, not an up-down situation, because of how much he worked in Game 5 of the NLDS (44 very-high-stress pitches on Thursday). I’m open to anyone who wants to criticize that decision – if Davis were available for a multi-inning spot, there’s no question he comes in for that second half of the 9th inning – but on that part, I think we have to defer to the Cubs’ coaching and training staff. There are a million little things that probably informed the decision to limit Davis’s role, and we’re not going to be privy to most of them. If Davis wasn’t quite feeling 100%, then the decision is the decision, and no one’s going to go into it too deeply in the media while the series is still going on.

But then we get back to the decision to use Lackey, specifically, in that moment. I get that there are only so many guys in the bullpen, and options at that moment were limited, especially if you were staring down the prospect of an extra-inning game. But using Lackey in moments where one swing can end it seems especially unwise given that no one in the National League gave up home runs at a higher rate this season than John Lackey.

Further, Lackey had literally never pitched on back-to-back days like that in his career … and you’ve asked him to do it for the first time after a long career as an exclusively starting pitcher when he turns 39 next week? I cannot think of a tougher situation to shove Lackey into, and, predictably, it didn’t work out.

Of the decision to stick with Lackey, Maddon put it this way: “I’m just betting on his experience right there as much as anything. I really thought that John would not be affected by the moment.”

In fairness, I doubt Lackey was affected by the moment. He’s just not that type. But, unfortunately, he pitched much like he has all season in his first inning of work, when he was similarly not affected by the moment. I have no ill feelings for Lackey today. He did the best he could when he was asked to do it, and a very good hitter got him.

Maddon’s options were limited in that moment if he was not going to turn to Davis – it was Lackey, Hector Rondon, or Mike Montgomery. With righties looming, I suppose you could say it was limited to Lackey or Rondon, but Montgomery was equally tough on righties and lefties this year, for what that’s worth.

In the end, even as I’m excoriating the decisions made in the 9th inning last night and the profound impact they had on the outcome of that game, I am not of the opinion that Joe Maddon is simply a foolish, slavish, old school manager. He’s demonstrated plenty of willingness to work outside the box with his in-game decisions, so he’ll get something of a pass from me on this one, even if the way he described the decision – I was saving Davis for the save – was brutally arcane. The spot was not good, and it materialized because of two walks by guys who cannot be walking hitters in that situation. That’s not on Maddon.

So I’m not here to blame Joe Maddon for the loss last night. But I also don’t think it’s intellectually honest not to point out that Davis should have come into that 9th inning to extend the game, even if it meant he was not available thereafter. Give yourself a chance in that 10th inning. Give yourself a chance.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.