Yesterday, Hardball Talk pointed out something brewing in a next-level unwritten rules controversy: management of the challenge system.
On Tuesday, in the ninth inning of a game in which the Cubs were leading the Cardinals, 8-1, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny ordered his infield to play in—a decidedly unusual move so late in a blowout. Typically, such tactics—things like having first basemen hold runners close—are eschewed when the final result is no longer in question. Pitchers even stop nibbling around the corners, the better to force action and end things quickly.
So why would he do it? ESPN’s Jesse Rogers may have an answer.
During the play in question, Addision Russell—the third batter of the ninth inning—was called out at first after grounding to St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong. It would have been the inning’s second out.
Instead, Maddon challenged, and Russell was ruled safe. The Cubs went on to score four times, ultimately winning, 12-3. By all appearances, Matheny saw the move as disrespectful. The Code during runaway games is largely aimed at avoiding unnecessary embarrassment for an opponent that’s already been embarrassed enough, the equivalent of a college football team pulling its starters while holding a 35-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Maddon explained his replay process thusly, via MLB.com:
“That validates running hard to first base. Two things could happen there: Maybe [Russell] could hit .300 because of that play, but more than anything, if our minor league players are watching, they see the validation of running hard to first base all the time.”
Both things are true. But a baserunner saying that the bag he swiped late in a May blowout might be the one that allowed him to reach 50 is spurious logic. This isn’t much different.
The Code during a blowout also stipulates the cessation of aggressive tactics, which means station-to-station running: advance only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. Wanting to reward his player for a hit justly earned wasn’t aggressive on Maddon’s part, but the Cubs actions with the very next batter—Javier Baez scored Chicago’s ninth run from second base on a single by Tim Federowicz—were.
Remember, Maddon’s Cubs and the Cards already have some history.
Ultimately, this seems like an issue that should be more or less immune to the unwritten rules. If a guy earns a hit, a guy earns a hit, and his manager looking out for him in that regard is the least he can do. Had Maddon chosen to challenge a play on the basepaths, it’d be a different story. For the time being, however, watching the Cubs and Cards snipe at each other is its own special reward.