Joe Maddon's Chicago Cubs put a squeeze on October

ST. LOUIS -- Baseball is crazy, Joe Maddon says. Baseball is beautiful, Joe Maddon says. And sometimes, on days such as Saturday, the beauty is actually in the craziness.

The Chicago Cubs won a nutty, almost inexplicable October baseball game Saturday. The scoreboard tells us this one turned out Cubs 6, St. Louis Cardinals 3. But sometimes, scoreboards don't tell us much.

One of these teams hit three home runs. It wasn't the team that won.

The other team's biggest inning of the day -- your basic five-run second -- revolved around two bunts that might not have traveled 100 feet combined.

Crazy. Beautiful. Whatever.

"All part of the beauty of the game," the manager of the Cubs said later, after his little bunt-a-palooza evened this National League Division Series at one win apiece.

It's funny, though. We don't often envision a bunt as a thing of beauty. Offhand, can anyone think of a painting of a squeeze bunt hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Or Cooperstown? Didn't think so.

But for the Cubs on Saturday, a pair of back-to-back safety squeeze bunts turned into the centerpiece of their biggest postseason inning away from Wrigley Field since Game 4 of the 1929 World Series at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Given the way the sport was played in 1929, the Cubs' second inning would have felt more sensible back then to Connie Mack than it did Saturday in a game managed by a new-age manager in the 21st century.

When was the most recent time a team laid down two squeeze bunts -- safety or otherwise -- in a postseason game? As best we could tell, from perusing 111 years' worth of postseason play-by-play data, that answer would be never.

ESPN's trusty Stats & Information team sifted through all that data Saturday and determined there had never been a postseason game in which a team successfully executed two sacrifice bunts with a runner on third. As such, it would be logical to assume no team had ever successfully executed two squeeze bunts in the same game. Right?

Except the Cubs didn't merely squeeze in two runs in the same game. They did it in the same inning. And they did it on back-to-back hitters.

Crazy. Beautiful. Whatever.

"I don't think I've ever said after a game that our manager had a really good game today," said Cubs catcher David Ross, who has now been in the big leagues for 14 seasons. "But our manager had a really good game today."

The manager had been thinking about this day -- or at least a day like it -- for weeks now.

"Everything has to be set up properly for that," Maddon said. "It just was. I mean, that happens every so often, I guess a harvest moon, possibly, I don't know. But it's one of those things that you look for, you work toward, but it doesn't always present itself."

Even though it presented itself Saturday, you should know Maddon is still not a candidate to be elected president of the American Bunting Association. The Cubs finished second-to-last in the league in sacrifices, with just 32 all season. Before the middle of September, they had attempted just five squeeze bunts this season.

But late in the season, that suddenly changed. Maddon tried five safety squeezes between Sept. 15 and the end of the regular season and at one point employed the tactic three days in a row. Only one of those bunts actually got a run home.

It was all done with an eye toward potentially pivotal moments in October, when merely putting a ball in play in the right spot can change everything.

"There is a lot of setup involved in making that play work," Maddon said postgame. "Sometimes you have to wait maybe a month or two months to have it happen, and furthermore, you have to have the right people to execute it, honestly. So it just happened tonight that everything was set up well. The things we talked about in September showed up on Oct. 10. It's just one of those things."

Maddon said he was pretty sure he had ordered back-to-back squeezes at some point in his time with Tampa Bay. Nope. He never did. He did try two in one game once, back on May 29, 2010, but that was a night very different from this night.

We'll set the scene. The Cubs had runners on first and third, with one out in the second inning, trailing by a run. The pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, was at the plate. Asked later to appraise his bunting skills, Hendricks said: "This year? Not too good."

Hendricks had dropped only three successful sacrifice bunts in 32 starts all season. He'd driven in exactly one run all season. But on the second pitch, he squared and pushed a perfect bunt just to the right of the mound. For the Cubs, that would have been an acceptable outcome in and of itself.

Except Cardinals pitcher Jaime Garcia fielded it, forgot about the runner on third, came unglued when people around him started shouting and then heaved the baseball halfway to Kansas City. Suddenly, there were runners on second and third, bedlam reigned and Hendricks had just become the first Cubs pitcher to drive in a run with a sacrifice bunt since Ed Reulbach scored Joe Tinker in Game 2 of the 1906 World Series.

"Just a little bit of chaos going on out there when he threw it away," Ross said. "And that kind of jump-started us."

It also jump-started the manager into his Harvest Moon let's-keep-bunting mode, even with burgeoning superstar Addison Russell at the plate. Clearly, Maddon surveyed the scene, saw he had an unnerved pitcher on the mound and a first baseman (Brandon Moss) playing back and way off the bag, and all the planets lined up. The manager lit up his safety-squeeze-bunt sign again.

"Of course he did," Hendricks said. "I mean, if it works once, why not go to it again? I'd have done the same thing."

Yeah, sure he would. But of course it worked again. Russell pushed another bunt to the right of the mound. Garcia had no play other than to scoop it up and flip it to first as the go-ahead run scored. In the Cubs dugout, it looked like Mardi Gras.

"I was firing up the manager, yelling at him after that first one -- and then he did it again," Ross said. "I almost passed out."

When asked if he was shocked to see that second squeeze sign, Russell shook his head and said, "No, I anticipated it."

Before this season, Russell had laid down one sacrifice bunt in his professional career. But after he was traded to the Cubs in the middle of the 2014 season, his Double-A manager, Buddy Bailey, convinced him to practice his bunting every day.

"At the time, I was like, 'OK,' but I know now it's key," Russell said. "It's something I can incorporate in my game, and I think I can get better at it too."

He took it seriously enough, even after reaching the big leagues, that his manager took definite notice. Maddon hit Russell with the bunt sign four times in the last two weeks of September -- again, with an eye toward a moment such as this. Russell rewarded that faith in September with two bunt hits and a sacrifice. So when that bunt sign came around again Saturday, he swore he wasn't shocked.

"I anticipated it -- really," Russell said. "That's just something I bring to my game. And all these guys in this clubhouse do. We anticipate something that's out of the norm. We're just ready for that. We're ready. Joe's a little bit unpredictable. But at the same time, the way he carries himself, he's more than that."

On this night, the manager watched a team known for its big flies -- not the little things -- score four runs on balls that never left the infield: two bunts, a chopper over the mound and a high hopper to the right side. It turned into one of the strangest postseason victories in Cubs history -- which is saying something.

But two safety squeeze bunts in a row? That's an all-timer, even for the Cubs. And even for a manager who sees beauty in the craziness of moments such as that.

"You saw something tonight that you never saw before, right?" Joe Maddon said. "You're welcome."