Sometimes It’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good, AKA Buck Funting & Literal Ghost Runners

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but luck is also what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The more superstitious among you might believe it’s as simple as having the baseball gods smiling down at just the right moment. One week after David Ross drew quite a bit of well-deserved ire for having slugger Patrick Wisdom attempt to bunt in a very advantageous count with two men on and the Cubs down a run, the manager again called for a hitter to lay one down.

The situation was very different, of course, with the non-slugging Tucker Barnhart pinch-hitting against nasty reliever Matt Brash in the 10th with a free runner on second and the score tied. If he gets the bunt down, the runner moves over and can score in any number of ways. Instead, Barnhart popped up meekly and appeared to have authored a fruitless at-bat until it became evident that Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh hadn’t located the ball.

Just for the record, I don’t completely hate the idea of Barnhart bunting there. The Wisdom bunt, on the other hand, remains one of the more perplexing decisions I’ve encountered in recent memory. Anywho…

Maybe it was the brand-new LED lights or just a momentary lapse in judgment. Whatever the case, Barnhart remained at the plate and Nick Madrigal, pinch-running for Yan Gomes, decided he wasn’t going to wait around to be moved over to third. So the li’l fella did something he’d never done before in his career by stealing third base on a move that was equal parts ballsy and foolish, with the deciding factor being its result.

“I felt like in that situation, I thought he was locked into the hitter and just trying to be aggressive,” Madrigal explained after the game. “I had a feeling and went for it. Once I saw an inside move, I just was committed already.”

No, no, no, no…YES!

It was a nifty bit of running, which would have been used said in a pejorative sense had it not worked. Though no one is mistaking Madrigal for El Mago, there was a Javier Báez-esque sense of just saying “F— it” and throwing caution to the wind. I’m a big proponent of going all out and at least failing aggressively because sometimes you just have to put your head down and go.

“It’s a play where it might look like it was lucky and obviously it was not what we drew up, you don’t wanna get picked off,” Nico Hoerner said. “But so many people freeze in that moment. They get in the rundown and it never works. But he just was committed to it and he went for it, and it ended up working out.”

Then again, maybe Madrigal did have a little bit of magic in him when he pulled his disappearing act and became a literal ghost runner. It didn’t hurt that Brash may have simply missed him because of his stature. Whatever the case, the bit of deception worked just well enough to put the Cubs in position to win.

“I think he thought he was invisible there,” Gomes joked. “I’m not sure we draw up that play like that. It worked out in our way. Sometimes that’s what happens playing here at Wrigley. Fans start screaming, guys turn around like, ‘What’s happening?’ And the next thing you know, he’s sliding into third.”

Barnhart eventually struck out after working the count full, giving way to Hoerner with the winning run just 90 feet away. Well, it was actually quite a bit less than 90 feet since the actual distance from third to home is only 87 feet with bigger bases — it’s 90 feet from the tip of home plate to the back corner of first and third — and Madrigal was then leading off. Anyway, Hoerner came up with a shot at his first walkoff hit.

After getting down 1-2, surely knew Brash was going to come with a slider as a would-be putaway pitch. Hoerner was ready for it and tossed the head of his bat at the outside offering, getting just enough to loft it into shallow right. The ball left the bat at just 68.2 mph, less than a tick shy of being nice, but it works just as well as a screamer in the box score.

Madrigal came home, the song played, and the flag waved. Back in the clubhouse a few minutes later, Hoerner conducted his postgame interviews wearing a snakeskin cowboy hat that looked like something Bret Michaels or Cody Bellinger‘s mom misplaced.

“I came in the locker room and Yan just put it on my head and I think we’ve got some sort of celebratory hat, I guess, I’ve been assigned to,” Hoerner explained. “That’s what we’re going with. I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

“He’s the new sheriff in town,” Gomes said. “I feel like things like that happen organically. I literally just saw it laying around and I just grabbed it and said, ‘Hey, Nico’s gotta wear this to do interviews.’”

It’s not as cool as an empty bucket of bubblegum or a batting helmet with a dummy’s hands glued to it, nor is it nearly as fun and interactive as the Orioles’ Dong Bong, but it presents a more striking visual image than walking around with a waffle iron.

It’s entirely possible that this will all be lost to the annals of time if the Cubs just hover around .500 for most of the season before fading into decided mediocrity by August. But what if they keep on finding ways to create good fortune and win more than they lose? With all necessary apologies for waxing overly optimistic and/or philosophical, stuff like this is a big part of the reason Jed Hoyer built the roster the way he did.

When athletes are in a comfortable space, they’re able to operate with their doing brain rather than their thinking brain. To paraphrase renowned sports performance coach Jason Goldsmith, being in that environment allows them to be their most playful and athletic selves. As corny as it may sound, I truly believe the makeup of this roster will allow the Cubs to win some games they wouldn’t have over the last two or three years.

It might still be luck, but it’s far from dumb. For the most part, anyway.

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