“You’ve been seeing the other side do their thing,” said David Ross, the Cubs’ veteran catcher, who knew what would happen when he and starter Jon Lester left after the top of the sixth on Sunday. “It couldn’t be long before Chappy would be in the game.”
Chappy is Aroldis Chapman, a former Yankee who, like Miller, looms over every game of this series. (Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, had no idea he was playing World Series casting director when he traded the two in July.)
Facing elimination, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon talked with Chapman before Game 5 so he would be ready to pitch in the seventh inning. After Carl Edwards Jr. pitched to the first two Indians hitters in the top of that inning — Maddon said he liked the matchup with the batter leading off, Mike Napoli — Chapman entered for the first eight-out save of his career.
“I’m always prepared for the ninth inning; that’s my job,” Chapman said afterward through an interpreter. “I understand that, but I always appreciate it if they let me know that I’m going to pitch more than the ninth inning. That’s fine with me.”
It is startling, in a way, that such a strategy seems so radical. Yet for a generation, it would have been. From 1988 to 1996, Dennis Eckersley made 26 postseason appearances as a closer for Oakland and St. Louis. He never pitched before the eighth inning. From 1997 through 2011, Mariano Rivera made 85 appearances as the Yankees’ postseason closer. He never pitched before the eighth inning, either.
Rivera was at Wrigley Field on Saturday to present the American League Reliever of the Year Award, which is named for him, to Baltimore’s Zach Britton. This postseason began with the Orioles’ manager, Buck Showalter, stuck oddly in the past, using six relievers in a wild-card loss in Toronto but refusing to use Britton — the league’s best reliever — at all.
Since the Showalter debacle, though, managers have eagerly deployed their best relievers, and Rivera has watched Maddon and Cleveland’s Terry Francona with interest.
“The starters go four sometimes, five sometimes — it will be a plus if the starter goes six or seven innings,” Rivera said. “But at the same time, it’s amazing to watch both teams, the way they have done it. Both managers have done a tremendous job using their bullpens. As a reliever, you love that. I enjoy seeing those battles between managers, using their bullpen to full capacity.”
This is an old phenomenon that is new again. The Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, a starter acting as his team’s closer, memorably saved Game 7 of the 2014 World Series with five lockdown innings in Kansas City. The Royals, in the last two World Series, also used relievers aggressively.
But before Chapman on Sunday, the last true closer to earn a save of more than two innings in a World Series game — excluding a couple of three-inning saves in 1990s blowouts — was Jay Howell of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988.
Lots of other relievers did it before Howell: Todd Worrell, Willie Hernandez, Bruce Sutter, Kent Tekulve. Goose Gossage entered two World Series games in the seventh inning or earlier; Rollie Fingers did so six times.
It made sense then, and it makes sense now, heightening the feeling of anticipation in these games.
“There’s all kinds of drama out there,” Maddon said after Chapman’s save on Sunday. “When you have a guy like that that can pitch that many significant outs in the latter part of the game, it’s pretty cool.”
Maddon benefited Sunday from the honesty of his starter, Lester, an 11-year veteran who knew when he had no more to give. After the sixth, Lester told the pitching coach Chris Bosio that the last two innings had been a grind. He had thrown only 90 pitches, but they were more taxing, mentally and physically, than a typical 90. He declined Maddon’s offer to work the seventh until a batter reached base, preferring to hand the bullpen a clean inning.
“Knowing the circumstances and what was going on, I had to be perfect from Pitch 1,” Lester said. “I had to execute. Couldn’t make mistakes.”
The last World Series to follow this pattern — the home team wins Game 1, the road team wins the next three, and the home team wins Game 5 — was in 1993 between Toronto and Philadelphia. Facing elimination in the fifth game of that series, with a weak bullpen behind him, the Phillies’ Curt Schilling threw a 147-pitch shutout.
The noble effort temporarily saved his team’s season, but Schilling needed elbow surgery the next May, and a modern pitcher almost certainly would never be allowed to do what he did. Just one pitcher has thrown 125 pitches in a game this year, postseason included: the San Francisco Giants’ Matt Moore, who threw 133 in his bid for a no-hitter on Aug. 25.
By late October — and certainly by November, when this World Series will be decided — most pitchers are all but spent. Relievers, taking advantage of scheduled days off, are fresher. The Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen fired three innings, almost as an afterthought, on the night the Cubs clinched the pennant. Chapman’s teammates had no doubt he could hold up on Sunday.
“He’s big and strong,” catcher Willson Contreras said in Spanish. “Do you really think eight outs is a problem for him? No. It seems easy. He executed everything I called.”
Edwards said he was not surprised to see Chapman replace him after two batters in the seventh.
“Chapman is a horse,” Edwards said. “Good fastball, good curveball, 100-plus. I mean, he’s different. He’s a different person. He’s a different breed. He did an outstanding job today. Coming in in the seventh, going the eighth and the ninth? It sums up a lot about his character and the shape he’s in.”
“Character” can be a tricky word. Chapman began this season by serving a 30-game suspension over domestic violence allegations. But he pitched well enough for the Yankees — without further incident off the field — for the Cubs to part with top prospects to acquire him in July.
“If not now, when?” Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ architect, said at the time. He was explaining a bold trade, but the same logic goes for Maddon, Francona and any other manager who wants to win in the modern postseason.
Go for it, with your best option, when the moment matters most. Championship droughts aside, the changing character of the games — limited work for the starters, more work for the best relievers — is the story of this World Series.