CHICAGO -- Depending upon your prevailing mood and rooting interests, you can approach the Marlins' upset win over the Cubs on Wednesday in the Game 1 of the National League Wild Card Series (MIA 5, CHC 1) in one of two ways. First, you can reflect upon the fact that the upstart Marlins pulled off yet another 2020 minor baseball miracle. Second, you can ponder whether Cubs manager David Ross is his first playoff game made a tactical error that may have swung the series.
Winners get to go first, so let's address the Miami side of things at the outset. The Marlins this season managed a winning record and a playoff spot despite coming off a 2019 season in which they went 57-105. Even this year, they stayed sufficiently above the waterline even though they were out-scored by the opposition by 41 runs. Then they overcame an early COVID-19 outbreak within the team that threatened to snuff out their season, or at least their hopes of a meaningful one. Still and yet, here they are one win away from moving to 7-0 all-time in postseason series.
In a sense, Game 1 was all of those unlikely outcomes writ small. The Cubs coming in were the better team. They had baffling co-ace Kyle Hendricks on the mound, and the determined Wrigley Field breeze figured to favor all those lefty Cub bats against Sandy Alcantara. Hendricks and Alcantara traded zeroes until the bottom of the fifth, when Ian Happ broke through with an opposite field solo home run that sneaked over the netting in left center.
That tally held until there was one out in the Marlins' half of the seventh. At the juncture, Miami trailed by one run on the road and had eight offensive outs on the clock. That translated to a 73.5 percent chance of a Cubs win in Game 1. Maybe those odds feel a bit longer given the respective quality of the two teams. The Marlins, though, chipped away at and then obliterated that figure over the next eight pitches from Hendricks.
That eighth pitch in particular brings us to Ross' decision. After retiring the first batter in the seventh, Hendricks permitted back-to-back singles, and they were the hardest-hit balls he'd allowed all day. When Corey Dickerson stepped in with one out and runners on first and second, Hendricks was at 105 pitches, a total he reached just once during the regular season. After the game, Ross said Dickerson would have been Hendricks' last batter of the day, no matter the outcome.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, this was the outcome:
Hendricks said afterward that it wasn't a bad pitch, that it was "just a good swing" by Dickerson, who's long been a reliable power threat against right-handed pitching. He's right about that. Hendricks' fastball was on the outer third, which required Dickerson to go the other way. He did, to great effect.
Hendricks, with his sinker-changeup approach and groundball tendencies can reasonably be regarded as a threat to get a double play ground ball in that situation, and that may have played into Ross' thinking. Hendricks' command and control, however, wasn't at vintage level on Wednesday. Coming into the Dickerson at-bat, he had spotted 61.9 percent of his pitches for strike versus a 69 percent figure during the regular season. Some of that was calculated, as Hendricks intentionally nibbled in the early innings on account of the wind blowing out, but some of it by his own admission was that he "wasn't sharp."
While the Cubs' bullpen hadn't been particularly effective this season, but it was rested in Game 1. All that really does is further balance the scales of an already difficult decision. To say Ross was clearly wrong to give Hendricks that final pitch leans too much on convenient hindsight, but it's fair to raise the issue.
As a consequence, the Marlins, who in the regular season were just 1-26 when trailing at the start of the seventh inning, defied the probabilities yet again. At the moment, basic probability tells you that the Cubs, down 0-1 in this best of three, have just a 25 percent chance of prevailing in the series and advancing to the NLDS. In a sense, they're now tasked with "pulling a Marlins" in this Wild Card Series.