Anthony Rizzo’s long been an oddity among MVP-caliber hitters not named David Eckstein, what with his propensity for choking up with two strikes. That humility, the whatever-it-takes mentality, has served him well throughout his career, but it was being put to the test Wednesday night in LA as Rizzo came in with just two hits in his last 26 postseason at-bats. And when he struck out in his first two trips to the plate against Dodgers lefty Julio Urias, things were looking rather dire.
Rizzo’s teammates had put a four-spot on the board in the 4th, perhaps allowing the slumping slugger to relax. Facing the slothful Pedro Baez in to lead off the 5th, the first baseman was in full-on take mode. He kept the bat on his shoulder and worked a 3-0 count, after which he got the green light. Baez pumped in a fastball middle-in and Rizzo pounced…and fouled it off.
After about an hour of jacking around on the mound, the big reliever readied and fired inside for what Rizzo thought was ball four. He tossed the bat aside and took a few steps toward first before being called back by home plate umpire Angel Hernandez. Strike two. As he prepared to dig in for the full count offering, Rizzo turned to face Hernandez and said, simply, “Sorry.” A small gesture, to be sure, but one that spoke volumes in spite of its brevity.
The strike zone in this series hasn’t necessarily been lauded, and those who’ve been subject to it aren’t the most contrite group of athletes you’ll come across. John Lackey, anyone? So Rizzo offering an apology for showing up the ump was a nice move. I won’t go so far as to say that it had any kind of karmic influence on his turnaround, but it’s fun to think that maybe his humility was part of the cause for what happened next. Or maybe it was Baez chucking a center-cut fastball.
You could see the relief radiating from Rizzo like a heat shimmer, the bad mojo flowing forth from his body with each step of his home run trot. It felt right and good and, especially when added with Addison Russell’s earlier jack, proved that maybe the last two games were really just an untimely slump after all. Maybe good teams suffer through those things. Weird.
— Brian Cassella (@briancassella) October 20, 2016
But as cool and fun as Rizzo’s homer was, it didn’t come close to telling the story of his game. After striking out twice with his own bat, he was looking like a latter-day Fisher King in need of a hero to provide him with a spear.
“Pick me out a winner, Matty,” I imagine him instructing Matt Szczur.
Looking for something, anything, to break the barrenness of his playoff performance, Rizzo strode to the plate with Matt Szczur’s bat in his hands.
“I knew he had it when he got in the box and I looked at Tommy La Stella and said, ‘Watch, he’s gonna get a knock right now,’ Szczur relayed after the game. “And then he hit the homer.”
Whether it was because of the leeway afforded by the lead, or maybe just because he didn’t need play it safe to move runners along, Rizzo changed his standard two-strike approach too. He chose not to choke up, even with a fireballer on the mound. That confidence, particularly coming off of a disappointing called second strike, was evident. But as it turns out, this strategy wasn’t so unique after all.
“I’ve done it a few times, especially later on in the year,” Rizzo explained. “The first two at-bats weren’t so hot. (Szczur) came out today with a nice feature on him about him giving his bone marrow, so all the things were just adding up. I hit well with his bat, so he has hits in it. Same size, just different model and different name, and it worked.”
By the time Rizzo came up again the following inning, the Cubs were in business once more. Rookie Ross Stripling had already allowed a run and the bases were loaded after a series of hits and errors were capped by a Kris Bryant walk. When Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt went out to talk with his pitcher about how to handle the next batter, Rizzo took advantage of the time to further apologize to Hernandez.
The FS1 mics caught the exchange and they aired it later in the broadcast, which I though was an excellent decision. I’m as big a fan of bat flips and home run pimpage as the next Millennial, but there’s something about playing the game the right way that still strikes a chord. And I’m not talking about some trite idealistic The Right Way, more the idea that you get back the respect you give out there.
I don’t have total recall of the conversation, but it went a little something like this:
“Hey, sorry again about that. I wasn’t trying to show you up.”
“No, you’re awesome. You misunderstood, I get that.”
“I just wanted to make sure you knew I wouldn’t do that.”
“No worries, you already told me.”
Ed. note: I saw the following clip shortly after publishing:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) October 20, 2016
And wouldn’t you know it, Rizzo rapped a sharp single to right to plate two runs in that same at-bat. Then he floated a ball over the glove of Corey Seager to go 3-for-5 and officially bring life back to his kingdom. It wasn’t just a matter of being humble and contrite, but it proved that if you trust the process and you stick with it, good things will eventually come your way.
The interplay between players and umpires is something a lot of casual fans might not really understand, so to have that included in the broadcast provided what I felt was a welcome window into the game. I’ve been really impressed by the overall production value of these NLCS contests, whether it’s the slo-mo side sides of players’ swings (see featured image) or the PitchTracks that overlays all the pitches from a given inning or full outing (Rich Hill’s curveballs, for instance.
There were so many other little storylines from Game 4, whether it’s the replay reviews or the Cubs reasserting themselves as a force to be reckoned with. I even gave Addison Russell’s awakening short shrift. Maybe I can laud him more when he does it again Thursday night.