ST. LOUIS -- It's not just a fad anymore, or something to laugh about later. Major league managers are using their position players on the mound as a strategy -- instead of a novelty -- to save their bullpen. And as you might imagine, Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon is at the forefront of the trend. He's more unorthodox than most.
This year alone, the Cubs have used a position player in six different instances -- the most times in baseball -- including in two games in four days recently. In one, against the St. Louis Cardinals, Maddon used three different position players to get through innings seven through nine. Three days later, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he used two more to finish the game, including first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo has been begging his various managers over the years to get his chance. It finally came with two outs in the ninth inning.
"Was good theatre," Maddon said. "I've heard from more fans walking around how much they enjoyed that moment."
Rizzo threw two pitches, getting A.J. Pollock to fly out to center field. Those in attendance went crazy, giving him a standing ovation, despite the 7-1 loss.
"It was crazy," Pollock said. "Fans going nuts. I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Then you're trying to figure out how hard he's going to throw. You know he can probably throw in the 80s or is he going to just go with 40 mph?"
Rizzo made sure to throw on the softer side, as an injury would have been a monumental public relations disaster for the Cubs, let alone one that could have dashed their World Series hopes.
"I take my side sessions during my pregame routine a little more serious, actually," Rizzo said. "But I'm not going to the mound and blow out my arm."
No matter what the final score is, position players pitching almost always elicit entertaining moments, such as when Cubs backup catcher Victor Caratini took the mound to face Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt last Monday. Caratini already had an inning under his belt, logged a few days prior against the Cardinals, but that didn't settle his nerves.
"Honestly, I was a little bit scared," Caratini recalled through an interpreter. "He's a great hitter. I was just waiting for a line drive right back at me. I didn't know how I would be able to react to it."
Before Goldschmidt stepped in, Caratini got some sage advice from his backstop mate, Willson Contreras.
"Caratini told me he might quick-pitch Paul Goldschmidt because he didn't want to get hit by a line drive," Contreras said. "I told him to throw really soft and start running back. Then you'll have time to react."
Caratini considered it but then thought better since it would look silly. Incidentally, Caratini might have been the best of the position players on the mound. He even induced a double-play ground ball off the bat of David Peralta.
"I tried a different grip just to see if the ball would move," Caratini laughed. "It's not something I expected to do in my professional career. I was glad I was able to do it to help give the bullpen some rest."
Contreras added, "Caratini had the best stuff. He had men on base, threw some cutters, got a double-play ball. I told [pitching planner] Mike Borzello, you never know, bases loaded, two outs, you may have to bring in one of those guys. When you throw softer it's hard to hit."
As much as you might think it's a good way to pad one's stats, players don't relish hitting against other position players. It's just not that easy.
"First one ever faced," Pollock said shaking his head. "I faced 50 mph in little league so have to go back to that. I don't think anyone here is excited to face a position player."
It was suggested to Pollock to take a softball hitting approach.
"I suck at softball," Pollock responded, shaking his head again.
The sequence with position players pitching against the Cardinals created a bragging-rights situation between good friends Tommy La Stella and Ian Happ. La Stella pitched in the sixth and seventh inning, giving up a home run to Greg Garcia while Happ threw an almost clean ninth inning, allowing a double by Harrison Bader.
"I have bragging rights on everyone," Happ said. "I got three outs and threw the hardest."
But La Stella threw a 55 mph curveball.
"As soon as I realized I could throw strikes with the fastball, I knew I could mess around a little bit with some off-speed," La Stella said. "I threw one acceptable [curve]. The rest were terrible."
Most players who pitched, including Happ, called it a bucket-list moment for them but not something they thought would ever actually happen. And it's not something you think about in your first full year in the majors.
"I got a little nervous while up there on the bump," Happ stated. "There was no conversation with the catcher. Put the glove up and I'll hit it."
Contreras laughed when asked if he gave any signs.
"I didn't need to," he said. "Only La Stella threw anything that wasn't straight. And that came in slow."
For the manager, the only concern on his mind is the risk of injury. It's why the pool of players to choose from -- with Rizzo being the exception -- is small.
"Backup catchers are always a good target," Maddon said. "I was one of those guys. David Ross brought it to an art form. Then you're looking for backup infielders. You don't normally put your All-Star first baseman on the mound."
But on one particular Monday night last week, that's exactly what Maddon did. After years of warming up before games as if he was a pitcher, Rizzo finally took the mound.
"Everyone knew I wanted to," Rizzo said.
"I wanted it to be done with," Maddon added. "I hear about it all the time. I truly believe I'll never hear it again."
"Rizzo was super-excited because his dream came true," Contreras said. "He was like a kid."
And isn't that what it's all about?