CLEVELAND — Rajai Davis watched Game 5 of the National League Championship Series in a state of mild confusion. The Los Angeles Dodgers strayed far from first base and faked bunts, tactics meant to rattle the Chicago Cubs’ pitcher. Jon Lester is one of the great pitchers of his era, but every team in baseball knows his odd incapacity to throw from the mound to first base. The Dodgers’ strategy bothered Davis in one regard: Only two of those dancing base runners ever tried to actually steal second base.
“I noticed nobody was running, either,” said Davis, the outfielder who led the Cleveland Indians with 43 stolen bases this season. “That kind of defeated the purpose, I think. If I’m going to get out that far, I don’t think anybody is going to throw me out.”
The Chicago Cubs are a juggernaut, the heavy favorite in the 112th World Series. But they possesses one obvious weakness, and it happens to align with one of the Cleveland Indians’ most prominent strengths. Only one team in Major League Baseball allowed more stolen bases than the Cubs during the regular season, and only three teams in the majors — and none in the this year’s playoff field — swiped more bags than the Indians.
It may be impossible to out-hit and out-pitch the 110-win Cubs, and so the Indians may have to beat them on the margins. So long as they can put runners on base against Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, their personnel and approach on the base paths should give them a chance. The Dodgers had to change their style in an effort to torment Lester, and if anything it seemed to hinder the Dodgers. The Indians, though, are built to exploit Chicago’s vulnerability.
The Cubs yielded 133 steals, second-most in the majors behind the Mets. The Indians stole 134 bases, fourth-most in the majors and the highest total in the American League by a wide margin.
“That sounds like music to my ears,” said Davis, who led the Indians with 43 steals. “We’re just going to be aggressive.”
If the Indians can put runners on base in Game 1, their aggression against Lester will turn to fascinating theater. The Indians will dare him to pick them off, and if he cannot, they have the speed to take advantage. “Lester on the mound, I know there’s reports out on things he does well and doesn’t do well,” outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall said, a coy smile spreading. “We get those.”
Lester can negate the running game, first, by not allowing runners on base — he is one of the best postseason pitchers alive. He has honed one of the most effective slide-step deliveries in baseball, a concession to his inability to pickoff. “He is quick to the plate, so it’s still going to be tough,” Davis said. “Unless you have some really elite speed, they could still throw you out.”
Over the past two seasons, opponents have stolen 72 bases in 95 attempts against Lester. This year, Lester yielded 28 steals (third-most in the majors) and Jake Arrieta surrendered 23 (fifth). The Cubs employ three catchers, and the Indians could be especially aggressive with Miguel Montero behind the plate. Montero allowed 59 steals in 66 attempts, catching only 11 percent of base runners.
“In the World Series, 90 feet is huge,” Arrieta said. “A lot of these games are going to be one-run games. We expect it to be very closely contested. Ninety feet during the regular season might not sound like a lot. But here, it actually means a lot more.
“Everything is more magnified. You give up a couple stolen bases in the regular season, so what? You kind of shake it off. If something like that happens here, in a tie ballgame a guy gets to second base, all it takes is a bloop. Runs are going to come at a premium in this series, so we’re going to do everything we can to control the stolen base.”
The Cubs counter intuitively insist other teams’ stolen bases can work in their favor. Whatever struggles they had in stopping base stealers did not keep them from leading the majors with 556 runs allowed, 56 fewer than the second-place Nationals. Their run-prevention operation is elite, regardless of any kinks.
“We understand that may be one of our weaknesses, but we’ve done some things to try to combat that and try to understand, okay, if they do steal, we’re still okay,” catcher David Ross said. “If you starting focusing on what the other team is trying to do, you may lose sight of what you do best. We’re going to try to be the best version of the 2016 Cubs we can be.”
Pitching coach Chris Bosio cast other teams’ aggression as a hidden advantage — for the Cubs. He is interested primarily in producing strikeouts and soft contact, and opposition steals can inadvertently assist the process.
“When they give up that stolen base, you’re creating a window for us to navigate our way through a lineup,” Bosio said. “That’s how we look at it. … We will deliberately throw certain pitches in certain counts that we know that hitter can’t hit, or he’s got a low contract rate on or a low slug, to get to a matchup that is more favorable for us. I’m not going to go into that any more.
“We know that this team loves to run. But we also know that’s going to allow us to put some guys on or pitch guys certain ways we’re hopefully won’t get hurt.”
In the third inning of Game 5 of the NLCS, Justin Turner stole second on Lester with two outs and two strikes on batter Corey Seager. Ross met Lester on the mound. “Pitch to the edges,” Ross told him. “Pound him in, chase him off the plate, because I like our matchup on deck a little better.”
Translation: Don’t be afraid to walk Seager or make him chase balls, because with first base open, the Cubs would be just as well off facing Carlos Ruiz. Lester struck out with a pitch off the plate. The Cubs were willing to walk him because first base had opened, and that willingness allowed Lester to make pitches more difficult for Seager to hit. (And, by the way, Ruiz popped to left to lead off the fourth.)
“We do that a lot,” Ross said. “We turn it into a positive. There’s a game plan. I definitely think we’ve learned to handle that very well.”
“I think we were the number one team in baseball that had the most stolen bases on us,” Montero said. “But we’re the number one in baseball that won the most games as well. We can’t change anything right now. I’m fine with the way we play the game.”
The other option?
“I guess we’re gonna have to try to throw no-hitters, so nobody gets on base,” Montero said.