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You've Gotta Have Art
by Derek Smart
Lou's the best tactical manager the Cubs have had for years, and today he brought out his best genius act in the top of the 8th.
Down by one with men on first and second, one out, and right-hander Tom Gordon on the hill, the next men up for the Cubs were Henry Blanco and the pitcher's spot, occupied at the time by Carlos Marmol. It was a situation that screamed pinch-hitter, with the only question being who to use.
Left on the bench at the time were three men: Geovany Soto (R), Daryle Ward (L), and Felix Pie (L). Here were the immediate options, and some thoughts on their utility:
Let Blanco hit for himself
Bring in Ward to hit for Blanco
You're certain to see a lefty, which causes you match-up problems, nullifying a lot of the advantage gained by using Ward in the first place. Go that way, and essentially, you're wasting one of your better pinch-hitters in a game where you can no longer afford to do so.
Bring in Pie to hit for Blanco
You're certain to see a lefty again, and Pie's been so completely awful against southpaws that it's an utterly untenable situation unless you're intending to bunt, which could be a legitimate thing to do if you're intent on not going into extras, although it's not a strategy I'd be terrifically keen on. It's also possible that Gordon stays in to stave off the possibility of using Soto to hit for Marmol.
Bring in Soto to hit for Blanco
This looks initially like your best option, but while it's true that doing this gets one of your better hitters in the game, Gordon's still a tough match-up for a righty, especially for one who hasn't seen him before. This makes sense, but with this likely being the best opportunity to tie the score you'll get, you'd prefer to engineer a better situation.
And engineer is exactly what Lou does. He's going to bring Pie in to face Gordon, but doesn't actually intend for him to hit. What he wants, more than anything, is to force his opposite number to bring in a lefty so he can get his best bench bat - Soto - the most advantageous match-up in what is nearly certain to be the Cubs last best chance to tie the ballgame. This is a great example of what, to me, is Lou's best trait as a manager: his ability to understand at what point in the game it's time to go all in. Plenty of other managers don't make these moves, first because it involves the only other catcher around, and second, because if Soto doesn't hit into a double-play, by the time this is all over his bench will be completely burned. What Lou understands, and is willing to act on, is the fact that it won't matter if you've got another guy available on the pine if you leave him sit there and lose.
Still, this is not my favorite part of the whole exchange. While I think there are plenty of skippers who wouldn't be willing to engage this strategy, there are, indeed, some who would. What elevated Lou's execution from standard but effective, to outright art, was the theatre of it all. First, there's a bit of a wait - although, I'll admit, this might have been due to some scrambling for helmets, etc - but the second, and I'm convinced, completely intentional part, was Lou sending both Pie and Ward out at the same time to warm up.
Lou doesn't want Jimy Williams to look at Pie, consider his struggles, and decide to leave Gordon on the mound just in case Lou has Soto hit next. He wants all his cards out on the table. He wants Williams to feel in his bones that Soto won't see action because Lou wants to keep his catcher for an emergency. He wants Williams to feel the threat of Ward right now, and to move that threat from the hypothetical, to the palpably real. He wants Williams a bit confused, unsure what to do, because if he's unsure, he'll do what The Book says, and The Book says to bring in J.C. Romero. Above all else, he wants to make sure, in no uncertain terms, that Geovany Soto will get his tasty lefty treat.
It was, truly, a gorgeous thing to watch, and all the more so because one could see the duping unfold. Once both men came out, the grand gesture made, it was obvious to me what Lou wanted - and who knows, it might have even been obvious to Williams - but Lou knew - he knew - that it's nearly impossible for a Major League manager to resist bringing in a lefty to face a lefty late in the game, let alone face two in a row. He knew if he showed his opponent what he wanted to see, that he'd react accordingly. He played Williams like a fiddle. And Cub fans danced.