CHICAGO — A town that already held bad playoff memories for Dusty Baker found a way to torment him again.
The Washington Nationals manager sat down in the interview room to explain two late-inning pitching changes that went south. Combined, they produced a 2-1 loss that left Washington on the brink of elimination in the National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs.
Judging by how Baker leaned in toward the microphone to answer questions, his seat must have already been hot.
“I probably couldn’t live with myself if [Kyle] Schwarber had had hit one out of the park,” Baker began, “which he’s dangerous to do that.”
That was in the bottom of the seventh with ace right-hander Max Scherzer still flummoxing Chicago’s hitters, but closing in on his 100-pitch limit for his return from a hamstring injury. A one-out double by Ben Zobrist, the Cubs’ first hit of the game, brought Baker to the mound with lefty-hitting slugger Schwarber on deck.
“I think we were all kind of 50-50 on what was going to happen,” Scherzer acknowledged afterward. The mound meeting ended with catcher Matt Wieters advocating for hard-throwing lefty Sammy Solis, and Baker agreed.
“These are pressure-packed situations. They’ve done their homework and they’ve done their job to come up with the best scenario in that situation,” Scherzer said. “I understand it. And when they made the decision, I was behind it as well.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon swapped out Schwarber with righty-hitting Albert Almora Jr., who had already notched 10 RBIs in pinch-hit situations. When he jumped on a Solis changeup and singled to center field to tie the game, Baker already knew there might be some explaining to do.
Baker’s other tough pitching call an inning later only doubled his workload. With a Cubs runner at second and two outs, the Nats could have walked dangerous left-handed bat Anthony Rizzo and gone after the next hitter, young catcher Willson Contreras.
Baker decided to pull Brandon Kintzler in favor of lefty Oliver Perez and pitch to Rizzo, who promptly blooped a single into left-center to drive in the go-ahead run. Rizzo, upset by the decision to pitch to him in that situation, added insult to injury by screaming, “Respect me! Respect me!” after the ball fell in.
Reminded of that moment, Baker scratched his chin. “I’d have screamed, too,” he said.
Baker said he didn’t want to put an extra man on base “at that point in the game. … We thought Perez could do the job — and he did the job. It’s just that he found a hole.
“That ball is kind of in never-never land out there,” Baker added, almost wistful, a moment later, “between three merging players on our team.”
That kind of luck is nothing new for Baker, at least not during his three-year managing stint in Chicago. He was at the helm when the Cubs took a three-games-to-two lead against the Marlins in the 2003 NLCS, only to have a fan named Steve Bartman stick out his glove trying to catch a foul ball — and everyone knows how that turned out.
Baker took some heat for not trying to steady his team while there was still time. The Cubs lost that game and the next one and he has been booed on occasion.
“I’ve got a bunch of homies here, so I’ve got some backup,” he laughed before the game. “I feel very safe wherever I go. I mean it’s always nice to come to Chicago. I’ve enjoyed coming here for years and years.”