CHICAGO — This is why you don’t leave a baseball game early. Never. There is no clock. Hope is a vampire in this sport. It cannot die.
Not even in a mid-April blowout game at Wrigley Field on a mist-filled afternoon with wind chills dipping into the upper 20s. Not even when the home team has less than a one-in-a-hundred chance of winning. And especially not when the visitors show little inclination toward finishing a sure victory.
You don’t leave early because you don’t know if you will miss the best terrible inning in recent baseball history.
By the time the bottom of the eighth rolled around Saturday, the crowd at the Friendly Confines had thinned considerably. The attendance was announced at 36,788, but a fraction remained near their dark-green stadium seats. Yes, near the seats, not in them. For many, the incessant blowing mist meant that the seats were too wet to actually sit in. The wind-chill temperature had dropped to 28 degrees by the middle of the game.
“I thought the 2008 World Series game [with Tampa Bay] was the worst weather game I ever participated in,” Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I think it just got surpassed. That’s not baseball weather. I don’t know what the intent is. I really don’t. The elements were horrific to play baseball. It’s not conducive.”
It was Bears weather. That’s an old saw that suggests a cold baseball game is played in football conditions. It fits this one, though, and not just because of the eventual gridiron-like final score. Bears coach Matt Nagy, who once played arena ball for Atlanta’s team (the Georgia Force), threw out the first pitch.
Atlanta had a 10-5 lead. The Braves had once led 9-1 and 10-2, so the Cubs had actually gotten closer. But according to the play logs at FanGraphs, Chicago still had just a 2.3 percent chance of winning when its half of the eighth began.
“We’ve been there before,” Maddon said. “We’ve taken advantage of wild pitchers, wild pitches, passed balls.”
No one would have blamed the Cubs for folding. It was miserable out there. Truly. They were five runs down. The game was already about three hours old. The Atlanta bullpen entered the game having surrendered only seven runs all season. A few quick at-bats and everyone would have gone home and forgotten about it.
The Cubs had lost three of their first four home games of the season, with their pitching staff often serving as punching bags for the hot offenses from Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Chicago had dropped to 6-7 on the season.
When the game began, with the wind blowing in, everybody wondered how those hardy fans out there could possibly sit through the whole thing. A quick game seemed likely because, after all, who could hit in those conditions?
“Craziest weather [I’ve played in],” said Cubs second baseman Javier Baez, who made an error in the game. “The weather really got to me today. No excuses on my error.”
Well, Ozzie Albies could, for one. If you haven’t seen Albies yet during his brief big-league career, make a note to do so. In two days against the Cubs, he’s already shown that there isn’t much he can’t do on a baseball field. And everything he does, he does with panache.
“The Braves are swinging the bat as well as you possibly can,” Maddon said. “I don’t care if the weather is 80 or balmy or whatever it was today. They have been really impressive.”
Albies homered to start the game on a looping drive towards the left-field foul pole that didn’t look like it could have possibly stayed fair. But it did, and Cubs starter Jose Quintana found himself in an early hole he never dug out of.
Albies added two more hits on the day and drove in four runs as Atlanta built its big lead, one that saw their win probability climb over 99 percent at several points during the contest. He became the youngest visiting player with a three-hit, four-RBI game at Wrigley since a rookie from the Braves did it Aug. 22, 2010.
That rookie was Heyward, now a Cub, who was taking a lead off of first base when Kyle Schwarber struck out for the first out in the eighth. But Heyward moved to second when pinch hitter Tommy La Stella looped a single to left.
Cubs win probability: 4.0 percent.
You just don’t leave a game early. Things can turn on a dime. You look at win-probability charts and you know the odds are against it. But when it happens, you’ll have a memory for life. Or, if it happens to you and not for you, it’s an unwelcome trauma. That’s the life of a baseball fan.
Jackson left the game early, or at least earlier than he would have liked. After La Stella singled off him, Braves manager Brian Snitker pulled Jackson and put in Jose Ramirez, a hard-throwing righty who has been up and down in the early going.
Right from the start, he looked down. The wind had kicked up even stronger. The mist was a little thicker, blowing directly toward home plate and coating the press-box windows. In the broadcast booth, frozen Cubs broadcaster Jim Deshaies looked like a guy who could use a warm bath. Meanwhile, Ramirez seemed to have no idea where his pitches were going.
“We were making mistakes in the infield,” Maddon said. “They were making mistakes on the infield. And these are really good teams. I think to a certain extent their wildness was attributed to the horrible weather. Whatever. We’re going to do what we’re asked or told to do. But I’m just here to tell you, those were the worst elements I’ve ever participated in in a baseball game. Ever.”
In the clubhouse, Cubs reliever Eddie Butler was in the training room. He was getting a rubdown after putting up 3⅔ key innings of relief, picking up Quintana, who was knocked out in the early innings. By the end of Butler’s outing, he had given up trying to be precise with his pitches. In those conditions, it just wasn’t possible.
“At the end of the outing, I ended up telling [catcher] Willson Contreras], ‘You know what? Just sit down the middle,'” Butler said. “You kind of had an idea where the ball was going to go, but you had no real pinpoint control.”
Back there in the training room, Butler’s rubdown continued. It would last for a long time. Why? Baseball superstition. A rally had started.
“The training staff was like, ‘Everybody keep doing what you’re doing,'” Butler said. “Do exactly what you’re doing. I was getting the same thing stretched out for 20 minutes. I was like, ‘I’m super loose now!'”
Watching Ramirez fight his command was like watching a spider in a toilet bowl trying to swim its way to safety. It was painful. But he got Contreras to hit a little nubber out in front of the plate. That didn’t do it, Atlanta’s luck at that point being what it was. The ball just far enough to allow the Cubs’ athletic catcher to beat the throw to first. A run was in.
The bases were still loaded, but there were still two out. Now, though, the lead run was coming to the plate. The Cubs’ win probability more than doubled. It was 7.6 percent.
“How about our guys?” Maddon marveled. “Easy to pack that game in.”
As miserable as this week has been for the Cubs during their first homestand, it’s been an exhilarating week for Baez. In the first four games at Wrigley, he homered four times — going deep twice in back-to-back games against Pittsburgh — and put up six RBIs and five runs.
Given Ramirez’s wildness, you might not want the swing-from-your-inner-soul Baez up there. But with the bases loaded, and given Baez’s flair for the dramatic, who else would you want?
“I just wanted to hit the ball on the barrel,” Baez said. “I’ve faced him before and he throws the ball hard. I mean, back to the weather. [I was] trying not to get jammed and feel my hand get numb.”
Baez battled Ramirez to a full count and stayed alive on one of his customary big swings after which he nearly lost his balance. Then he lined a 107 mph double into left-center that skipped over the wet grass all the way to the wall. The bases cleared. The game was tied.
“We don’t really give up, ever,” Baez said. “The energy in the dugout was pretty pumped. [Anthony Rizzo] was joking around and stuff. I took good ABs even going 0-for-4. But we didn’t give up.”
The Cubs’ win probability was at that point 58.1 percent.
“How about Javy again?” Maddon said. “Javy might have been 0 for 4 to that point, but all of a sudden it mattered, and here comes an absolute lean drive to the gap, perfectly placed to score everybody.”
Given the extreme weather, you don’t want to be too hard on the Braves, or Ramirez, Jackson, Snitker, Hulk Hogan or anybody else associated with the city of Atlanta. Still, there were two teams dealing with the same stuff. One of them was able to fight through it. One was not.
“That was the craziest,” Bryant said. “It’s freezing cold, what was it 10-2? I think we scored all nine runs with two outs. Give credit to the fans for sticking that one out with us. It was one of the craziest wins that I’ve been a part of.”
It felt like there wasn’t any doubt about what would happen after the Cubs tied the game. Addison Russell was walked intentionally, and Snitker went to lefty Sam Freeman in a last-ditch effort to keep the game tied. It wasn’t to be. Freeman had no idea where the ball was going, either.
The inning got worse and worse until it finally came together with the sort of illogical unity you might find in a Van Gogh masterpiece. Freeman walked Heyward, who reached base twice in the inning without putting the ball in play. Schwarber walked, putting the Cubs in the lead and putting their win probability at 87.5 percent. La Stella walked in another run. Win probability: 94.2 percent.
Snitker was back out to the mound again, this time summoning Peter Moylan. But the veteran had no better luck and, certainly, no help behind him.
This is where the inning reached tragi-comedy brilliance. Moylan uncorked a pitch that can only be described as “wide right,” and while the ball was bounding off the brick behind home plate, Heyward scored. However, La Stella was caught off second in what should have become a rundown. But catcher Kurt Suzuki threw it away and Schwarber scored. La Stella almost did, too, when a throw home skipped away.
And that’s how we arrived at our football score: 14-10. Win probability for the Cubs was then 98.7 percent.
Finally, Navarro struck out to end the most beautiful ugly inning you’ll ever see, or at least one of the most memorable. The Cubs had scored nine runs, all with two out, on three hits. The Braves threw 55 pitches in the inning.
The ninth was mercifully quick. After Brandon Morrow got Suzuki for the final out, 3 hours and 43 minutes after first pitch, the probability ticker finally reached 100 percent.
Maybe Maddon was right. Maybe they shouldn’t have played. But when you do, anything can happen. Afterward, there were a smattering of cold, wet Cubs fans, fresh off singing an unexpected round of “Go, Cubs, Go!” who wandered out into the early evening of Wrigleyville. They were the ones who stuck out it and now will never forget.
They are the ones who will also tell you: You don’t leave early.