Cespedes' theft of third sets stage for Cahill's decisive wild pitch that Montero couldn't block
By Paul Hagen
CHICAGO -- The image that will last, the memory that will linger, will be the final, fateful sequence. Here's the video that will be re-run endlessly when turning-point-moments-in-the-postseason are discussed.
That was the play that allowed the Mets to score the winning run in the top of the sixth inning of what turned out to be a 5-2 win over the Cubs in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. At least with the benefit of hindsight, it is the play on which the outcome of the game -- and maybe the entire series -- hinged.
It was a play that was reminiscent of the famous passed ball charged to Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen in Game 4 of the 1941 World Series. Tommy Henrich of the Yankees had apparently struck out at Ebbets Field to end the game and even the Series at two games apiece. But the pitch got past Owen. Henrich reached first. The Yankees rallied to win and then won again the following day to win the world championship.
It was also just the second time in postseason history that a strikeout has resulted in the go-ahead run scoring. In Game 2 of the 2011 ALDS game between the Rangers and Rays, Tampa Bay's James Shields struck out David Murphy for what should have been the second out. Murphy, however, reached on a wild pitch and Adrian Beltre scored the fourth run in what ended up as a five-run rally for Texas.
So, yeah, all by itself Tuesday night's play had the kind of drama and impact that instantly made it part of baseball's lore.
It should also be pointed out, however, that it was a play that might not have mattered if Cespedes hadn't been on third.
With the score tied at 2, Cahill came in to start the top of the sixth, and Cespedes led off the inning. Playing for a run, Mets manager Terry Collins had first baseman Lucas Duda bunt the runner to second. Then, with catcher Travis d'Arnaud batting, Cespedes easily stole third.
"My thinking was just that I was confident I would make it," he said. "With just one out, I felt like I knew I could put us ahead."
That turned out to be a crucial play even after d'Arnaud grounded out, taking away the possibility of a sacrifice fly.
"There's not really anything I can do," Montero said. "I mean, the guy was almost sliding into third when the pitcher still had the ball in his hand. Just give me a chance."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon agreed.
"That was our fault," he said. "We permitted him to do that. That was a very big play right there. ... Again, this time of the year everything does magnify a bit, and so, yeah, that was a big play on their part."
Cahill saw it a little differently.
"I wasn't too worried about it," he said. "I was like, I can hopefully put this guy away with a strikeout or a weak ground ball. A guy on third with Miggy catching, I didn't think about that."
It turned out to be a big deal because Montero kept calling for knuckle curves and Cahill kept throwing them. The first was a swing and a miss. Strike one. The second was also a swing and a miss, but a pitch Montero had to block. The next two were balls in the dirt. Montero blocked them, too.
The fifth sequence was a good pitch in the sense that it struck Conforto out. But it bounced just a little too far in front of the plate and skipped just a little bit to the right. And this time Montero couldn't get his glove or his knee pad or his chest protector in front of it. This time it got past him, allowing Cespedes to score.
"It was a tough one. I went down to block it, and unfortunately I didn't. I've blocked pitches like that many, many times. But I didn't block that one," Montero said. "It really hurts because it was strike three. But, you know what? It happens. It's part of the game. You can't block every ball. I wish we could. Nothing I can do. I can't change that.
"We got him on two strikes. We tried to get him to chase, which he did. If you look at it, it wasn't an easy block. But I've got to do a better job than that. I wanted the pitch there. I should have blocked it. I didn't. Did I try? Yes. But trying isn't good enough."
Said Cespedes: "I was preparing myself for the ball to hit the dirt. It happened before, but I wasn't able to go ahead yet. In my mind, I was just trying to be prepared for whatever happened."
Cahill said he wasn't at all concerned about throwing another pitch in the dirt.
"Throwing to him for three years, he blocks that 99 times out of 100," he said. "Unfortunately it didn't work out this time. But I had all the confidence in the world to bounce a hard curveball. I did that. He's good at that. That's why he's such a good catcher. It just kind of skipped and went to the one place he wasn't blocking."
Everybody saw what happened on the pitch that got away. The fact that Cespedes was in a position to take advantage of it is a crucial part of the story, too.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.