The Buck Stops Here: Don’t Expect Cubs to Save Closer for Saves

The Orioles’ season ended Tuesday night after being tied for most of the final 6 innings, during all of which their lights-out closer could do nothing but twiddle his thumbs and hope his team could eventually grab the lead. Brad Brach got the Orioles through the 8th, then ran into trouble and logged only one out in the 9th. In came Darren O’Day, who induced a one-pitch double play and cruised through the 10th unscathed.

All the while, speculation ran rampant that perhaps there was an injury we didn’t know about. Or maybe Buck Showalter, patron saint of new-school success with old-school tactics, was going all Mickey Goldmill and refusing to let Rocky fight southpaw until the time was exactly right. Probably just a matter of his instinct being smarter than all the nerds’ spreadsheets, though.

So in came Brian Duensing, who struck out Ezequiel Carrera to open the 11th. Duensing gave way to Ubaldo Jimenez, who you may remember from that time he threw the first no-no in Rockies history and finished third in Cy Young voting in 2010, causing you to pick him up in fantasy baseball for years after in the hopes that he’d return to form. He’d worked primarily as a starter but had given up 10 earned runs on 10 hits (5 extra-base hits, 3 home runs) in 10.1 innings out of the pen in 2016. I’m no managerial genius, but that’s probably not the guy I turn to to face the top of the Blue Jays’ potent order.

Jimenez opened up well enough, getting to 1-1 on a called strike to Devin Travis. But his next offering was lined to left for a single and his first pitch to Josh Donaldson suffered the same fate. Then the lanky veteran righty served up a center-cut two-seamer that Edwin Encarnacion terminated with extreme prejudice. Game over.

And there in the bullpen sat a man with 47 saves and a 0.54 ERA, and against whom righties like Travis, Donaldson, and Encarnacion only slashed .155/.211/.199 on the season. Zach Britton? More like Zach Sittin’, amirite.

Buck Showalter was excoriated Tuesday night, and for good reason. Despite being highly thought of as a manager, Showalter made the inexcusable decision to hold his best pitcher for a save situation that never came. It’s one thing to make that call in August, when the guy has pitched in two straight and you’ve got a big division lead. But in a win-or-go-home Wild Card tilt? Buck, my dude, you can’t win games you haven’t played yet and you sure as hell can’t win a game you don’t lead. It was dumbfounding for everyone watching.

I cracked a joke in the aftermath of the walk-off that we should prepare for the moment when Aroldis Chapman sits idly as Travis Wood comes on to face a righty in a high-leverage situation. Ah, but the good news is that Cubs fans shouldn’t have to face similar harrowing trials with old-school situational shenanigans when their postseason plays begins. While Tuesday’s Buck-up certainly underscored it, the Cubs fully intend to ride their closer from here on out.

“Your closer pitches to a much greater percentage of hitters in the postseason than he does in the regular season, because with the off-days, he can pitch every game,” Theo Epstein explained following his club’s simulated game Tuesday afternoon. “You’re more likely to use him for more than just three outs. And it’s the end of the year and everything’s on the line, so you put the ball in the hands of your best pitcher.” [emphasis mine]

Not that Joe Maddon’s going to get fast and loose with Chapman, especially knowing that he’s got a slew of other power arms surrounding his stopper. Seeing Jimenez out there for the 11th made me think of the Cubs having to turn to Jason Hammel in a similar situation, which would be less than ideal. As it is, though, having Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon in the pen is all the more reason to lean on Chapman when the situation is most dire. They’ve got the arms to hold down the fort after him if need be.

“That played into our trade for Chapman a little bit, to get a guy who’s that dominant and have him on your side in the postseason in some really big situations,” Epstein continued. “We were certainly mindful of the postseason when we made that move.”

Epstein went on to rationalize the acquisition of the fireballing Cuban by saying that he’s been a great fit in the clubhouse and that the guys love having him around. I’m don’t know whether that’s a little preemptive spin for an attempt to bring Chapman back after this season, but it felt a little forced and unnecessary if you ask me. Even if you didn’t ask, I know there are more than a few fans out there who don’t need or want to hear that the guy is playing nice with others.

Regardless of how you feel about Chapman — and despite much of the remaining vitriol, I think most fans have either glossed over the character flaws or have successfully compartmentalized their oogy feelings about his presence on the roster at this point — he’s an indispensable part of this Cubs team. So if given the choice between having him in a jacket while another reliever allows a walk-off home run and having him throw another game-sealing strikeout, I’m going with the latter every single time.

Maybe the Cubs can just make everyone happy and win each of their playoff games by 5 or 6 runs. Yeah, I think that’s really the best course of action. Is it Friday yet?

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