LOS ANGELES -- Go ahead. Eviscerate Joe Maddon for his end-of-game pitching decisions in the Chicago Cubs' 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday. But know this, there were extenuating circumstances surrounding closer Wade Davis, who never got into the game after throwing 44 pitches in Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Thursday.
As for Maddon's late-game lineup decisions, there's no ambiguity there. He allowed three righties to bat in the top of the ninth inning -- two with the potential go-ahead run on first base -- against all-world righty closer Kenley Jansen. Maddon even let righty Albert Almora Jr. bat after barely using him against right-handed pitchers all season.
But the lasting image will be Justin Turner sending a pitch over the center-field wall off 38-year-old John Lackey to give the Dodgers a 2-0 series lead. So let's start with the decision to bring in Lackey instead of Davis in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run on second and one out.
"Tonight, I really was waiting for that opportunity to grab a lead and then throw him out there," Maddon said of Davis. "That's what it was all about. There was no way he was pitching more than one [inning], and that was pretty much it."
Maddon made it clear he's not one of those managers who would pitch his closer only in a save situation on the road, and let's face it, if Lackey and Davis both are completely fresh, does anyone really believe Davis isn't in the game at that point?
"You have to understand when you have a guy like that [Davis] coming off the performance that he had [in the NLDS], to warm him up and not use him is equally as bad," Maddon said.
The point is Maddon could have brought in Davis to get one out with the score tied and that would be it for him, or he could have waited until the Cubs got the lead. He chose the latter. Some might have wanted Davis in the game to face Turner after Lackey walked Chris Taylor, but that would have required Davis getting warmed up. If Lackey gets Taylor out, then Maddon has wasted Davis. Again, the Cubs said they weren't going to warm up Davis, sit him down, then warm him up again later and bring him in.
"I knew it was only going to be a one-inning type stint," Davis said. "Lackey's track record in the playoffs has been amazing. I don't think that's anything anyone is second-guessing."
Lackey gave up 36 home runs in the regular season, so it can't come as a shock he gave one up to one of the best hitters in the league. His problem came when he walked Taylor ahead of Turner.
"Bad location," Lackey said of the home run ball. "Put it in a bad spot."
Said Maddon: "Once that walk occurred, all bets were off against Turner. Nobody is a really great matchup against Turner, so it just did not work out. I liked him [Lackey] against the first guy [Taylor]. ... I'm just betting on his experience right there as much as anything. I know that he went out there and tried to make the pitches that he wanted to make. I know that the crowd would not affect him, and it didn't."
In a perfect world, Davis would have been fresh enough to finish the ninth and keep pitching with the hope the Cubs got the lead. It just didn't play out that way, with the bullpen once again seeing its ERA rise in the playoffs, this time with a starter finishing the game rather than a closer.
"I really just needed him [Davis] for the save tonight," Maddon reiterated. "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 lead could have come in the top of the ninth against Jansen -- as foolish as that might sound. The All-Star closer hit Anthony Rizzo with one out, allowing the Cubs their first baserunner against the Dodgers' bullpen over the course of the first two games. Jansen wasn't exactly on the ropes, but it was a start. A gapper or a ball down the line would have given the Cubs the lead.
Due up were righties Willson Contreras and Almora. On the bench were lefties Kyle Schwarber, switch hitter Ian Happ, Tommy La Stella, Alex Avila and Leonys Martin. Those first few names are some good hitters. It's understandable Contreras stayed in the game, but Almora's spot provided a perfect opportunity for a pinch hitter.
"If you dig deeper, our lefties are really not a good matchup, I didn't think, for him [Jansen] at that point," Maddon said. "I thought he [Almora] would have moved the baseball, and he did."
Almora hit a ground ball to shortstop for an easy out to end the inning. "Moving the baseball" sounds good if there is a runner at third base and less than two outs, but Maddon's logic doesn't fly with just a man on first. Not when Jansen has an OPS against left-handers that is 325 points higher than it is against righties this season. 325! La Stella and Schwarber have OPSs of .845 and .814 against righties this season. Anyone hitting off Jansen is very unlikely to come through, but for the game to end without one lefty getting a chance meant the Cubs didn't have much of a chance to win.
"Among a lot of our guys, he's a guy that makes contact," Maddon said of Almora. "It might not be a high average sometimes against a righty, but I thought he had a better chance of making contact."
The irony is Almora has been a lightning rod of criticism for Maddon, as the popular player often gets removed from games when a righty enters. His batting average rose throughout the season against righties, but he ended with just a .291 on-base percentage against them -- and a lower OPS (.711) than some of those lefties on the bench.
"I'm always itching to bat," Schwarber said afterward.
Maybe he'll get the chance next time, though the Cubs are running out of games. Down 2-0 in the series, they'll need to light up the scoreboard a little more, make sure their closer is fresh and not leave any rock unturned in their quest to come back in the series.
"Whenever you're on the bench, your name is going to get called upon at some point," Schwarber said. "You just don't know when."
Not in every game, apparently.