CHICAGO – The perfect play took three seconds. It involved four men. The first is a pitcher with the ability to dot 94-mph fastballs on a dime-sized target 60 feet, 6 inches away at home plate but is so bad at throwing a ball 66 feet, 7½ inches to first base he doesn’t do it. The second is a catcher, a literal graybeard, who loves everything about baseball but especially loves to throw a ball to second base. The third is a flashy second baseman, all energy and panache, who turned the simple tag into an art form. And the fourth is the mark duped into thinking he could beat them.
Poor Francisco Lindor. The Cleveland Indians’ scouting report said he could run Sunday night. It said Jon Lester, the pitcher, the man who refuses to throw to first because when he does it inexplicably ends up in right field, was ripe for abuse from those on the basepaths, especially one as fast as Lindor, who has well-above-average speed. It said so long as a runner got the right-sized lead, the proper jump, there was nothing David Ross, the catcher, or Javier Baez, the second baseman, could do. This was Francisco Lindor’s moment. This was how he was going to help the Cleveland Indians win the World Series.
It was the sixth inning of Game 5, and Lindor had just driven in Rajai Davis, who himself stole second without so much as a throw, because Ross juggled it trying to transfer the ball from glove to fingers with a magician’s sleight of hand. Now it was Lindor’s turn to make a one-run deficit an even ballgame, and he crept toward the quarter-circle of dirt that meets the edge of the grass, planted himself, stared at Lester, leaned a little bit and took off.
There was a hush in the air at Wrigley Field, because they’d seen this minutes earlier with Davis, seen this all season with Lester’s only weakness being holding on runners, seen 108 damn years of moments like this, where the little things – the minutiae, always the minutiae – went the wrong way. And then, less than three seconds later, umpire Sam Holbrook took a step and threw a forceful right hook, Lester pointed to Ross, Ross scampered off the field with a grin, Baez picked himself off the ground, Lindor stayed there, out, unquestionably out, and the wheels of October, evermore against the Cubs, were turning right for once. And they kept turning, for nine more outs, for a 3-2 victory, the first World Series win in 71 years at Wrigley, one that sent the Cubs back to Cleveland for a Game 6, which was in doubt until they started reminding themselves of the team they’ve been for 162 games and two previous postseason series.
There was Jason Heyward Spider-Manning the right-field wall to make a catch and Anthony Rizzo catching a pop-up that bounced off Ross’ glove and backup catcher Willson Contreras gloving a 102-mph fastball closer Aroldis Chapman spiked 59 feet. These were the Cubs who turned batted balls into outs better than any team in decades, a fundamental masterpiece of a team that somehow made chicken salad out of Lester’s yips.
“Lester gets rid of the ball quickly. Rossy has a quick release, a strong, accurate arm. Baez is the best guy I’ve ever seen putting a quick tag on a guy,” said Cubs third-base coach Gary Jones, who works with the team’s infielders. “It’s a combination of everything coming together. If all three of those things don’t happen, we don’t get him. They work in tandem, and that’s the result you get.”
Take away any one of those elements, and Lindor is standing on second base with Indians cleanup hitter Mike Napoli at the plate. Combine all three of them, and it’s baseball at its symphonic finest.
Each element is impressive considering the circumstances, which were tracked to the inch by Statcast, the delightful system that allows quantification of plays that heretofore were simply left to words. This was great, yes, but how great?
Well, Lindor’s lead off first base was 16.7 feet. The average stolen-base attempt on a caught stealing is 10.7 feet while that of a successful steal is 11.1 feet. When the distance between the bases is only 90 feet, a 6-foot advantage is monumental. Where Lindor went wrong was on his secondary lead, or the extra ground he took as Lester started his delivery. Lindor was 24.5 feet off first base. The average successful steal is 23.1 feet. He frittered away three-quarters of his advantage and had the displeasure of trying to beat the Cubs’ triumvirate.
To make up for his lack of a pickoff move, the left-handed Lester is devilishly quick to home plate, and on this play he was no different: He took 1.06 seconds to deliver the ball, about 6 percent faster than average. And to make things even better, he delivered a 91-mph fastball off the outside corner to the right-handed Napoli.
It was the perfect pitch for Ross to throw on. By now, Ross is used to these situations. He is Lester’s personal catcher, a 39-year-old starting his final game in the major leagues before retirement. He understands Lester’s limitations and accordingly foists on himself greater expectations. He was frustrated during Game 1 when he tried a whip-crack transfer and lost it, allowing the runner to steal second. It was Francisco Lindor, and he later scored.
When Ross popped out of his crouch to throw, it wasn’t his arm strength – 79.4 mph, almost exactly average – that would allow him to cut down Lindor. It was his hands. The ball went from glove to fingers in 0.59 seconds. The average time on a caught stealing is 0.73. If anyone ever says David Ross is a magician, that person isn’t lying.
“I’m not gonna toot my own horn … but I’m pretty good,” Ross said. “I’m not bad.”
From the moment the ball hit Ross’ glove to the instant it popped in Baez’s took 1.92 seconds. And Baez’s tag, like so many he has swiped this postseason, was perfect, like his left hand was magnetically attracted to the left flank of a headfirst-diving Lindor. The two are countrymen, faces of the Puerto Rican baseball resurrection this postseason. Lindor is the king of steady, a ballplayer’s ballplayer, good at everything, great at almost as much. Baez is a rocket ship. Sometimes he runs out of fuel, but when he blasts off, is it ever glorious.
The tag was worthy of Cape Canaveral. Ross’ throw was about two feet off-line toward right field and a bit short of the base. Baez leapt into a slide – left leg tucked, right extended – and readied his glove to grab the ball and paint it on Lindor. Baez is a natural left-hander. He writes lefty, eats lefty. He even can swing lefty. He was taught years ago to get to second early and time his glove so it never stops moving, instead of the typical practice of catching the ball, then applying the tag. It’s like Ross’ transfer, only with the hand-eye coordination of someone about half his age.
“It happens a lot that I miss the ball,” Baez said, “but I save a lot of runs and a lot of steals.”
This was one of them, maybe the biggest of all. The Cubs were down three games to one in the series, a deficit from which no team had recovered since 1985, but they weren’t beaten. This wasn’t a team folding. This was the Cubs defying even what the Cubs’ manager said before the series began. When asked how to control the running game, Joe Maddon brought up two names – Davis and Lindor – and said about them that essentially, you don’t, try as you might.
The Cubs tried, and they did. And of all people to thank as he led the crowd of 41,711 in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder chose David Ross. And with Baez mired in a deep World Series slump at the plate, he did plenty of good with a tag. And Lester, even as the Indians had cut their deficit in half, as Lindor threatened to turn the sixth into a repeat of Game 1, did his part.
“That’s a pretty good combination,” said Cubs quality assurance coach Henry Blanco, himself a former catcher. “We know our pitcher has trouble throwing to first base, but when you’ve got a catcher who can throw like that and a guy at second base who can tag as good as anybody else, what more can you ask for? Everybody else is talking about the pitching, all that. I think that was the key to the game right there.”
In spring training this year, and throughout the season, Jones reminds the Cubs something he learned a long time ago: “You can’t outrun the baseball,” he says, and what he means is no matter how fast a player is, he’s going to be out most of the time on a routine ground ball or a well-executed caught-stealing attempt. Francisco Lindor tried to outrun the baseball on Sunday night because he was told he could. He just didn’t know perfection was about to get in his way.