Pickoff, dramatic replay at plate keep Dodgers scoreless until Chicago bats awaken
By Andrew Simon
As the Cubs' offense continued to sputter early in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night, the club's defense made a pair of crucial throws to keep the Dodgers from pulling ahead.
Chicago's bats got going eventually, snapping a 21-inning scoreless drought with a four-run fourth, setting up a 10-2 victory that evened the series. But it was a throw by catcher Willson Contreras in the first inning and another by right fielder Jason Heyward in the second -- which featured a divisive replay review -- that kept the game scoreless until then.
The Dodgers' first threat of the game came in the opening frame, when second baseman Javier Baez tried to complete a double play but threw wildly to first, allowing Justin Turner to take second with two outs. That brought Adrian Gonzalez to the plate against John Lackey with a man in scoring position.
After Lackey fell behind in the count, 2-0, Contreras struck with an opportunistic play. When Lackey threw ball three, and Turner strayed 19 feet off the bag with his secondary lead, Contreras saw Turner "flat-footed" and whipped a throw down to second. Shortstop Addison Russell applied the tag on Turner, who couldn't get back quickly enough.
"He was far from second base, and I saw Addison Russell and he was looking at me, and he put on the sign and we just executed it," Contreras said.
While Statcast™ measured Contreras' throw at a solid 86 mph, the key to the play might have been the 24-year-old rookie's pop time -- the time from when the pitch hit his glove to when Russell received his throw. Contreras' 1.89-second pop time was his second-fastest of the season on an assist and comfortably below the MLB average of 1.99 seconds.
"And how about Contreras' pick at second?" Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "That was very large with Gonzalez hitting right there. It put a whole different feel or look on the game. He had himself quite a game behind the plate.
"He's a weapon. He's a weapon, the way he throws the baseball. He's not afraid."
Contreras had to make another difficult play in the next frame, although this time he was on the other end of a throw.
In the second, Gonzalez led off with a single and moved up on Yasmani Grandal's two-out walk. Andrew Toles then lined a single to right field, and while Gonzalez is not fleet of foot, he rounded third and went for home with pitcher Julio Urias due up next.
Knowing Gonzalez was running, Heyward fielded the ball and calmly lined up his throw. His 89.9-mph heave to the plate was nine mph below his best this season, when he threw out the Mets' James Loney at home from center field on July 20. On that play, Heyward also was 252 feet from the plate, 40 feet further than on his Game 4 throw.
"I knew [the velocity was down]," Heyward said. "That was the point of it for me, was not to come up and overdo it. Because it's easy to be too amped up in the game and situation and all that. That's what I try not to do. I came up, tried to get a grip on the ball and make a good throw home."
Even with Gonzalez running his second-fastest second-to-home time of the season (7.32 seconds) Heyward's throw one-hopped to Contreras with Gonzalez still on the grass outside the dirt circle surrounding the home-plate area. Contreras whirled around to his left and put the tag down on Gonzalez, who dove in head-first and tried to sneak his hand across the dish.
Gonzalez was called out. The Dodgers challenged, and while he appeared safe from certain angles, replay officials decided there was not definitive evidence that would warrant the call being overturned.
"I knew I was safe," Gonzalez said afterward. "We've got plenty of still frames to prove that I was safe. Unfortunately, this turned into a trial, and there wasn't enough evidence."
The play ended up being somewhat of a footnote given the final margin, and even Gonzalez admitted that the Dodgers seemed to lose their way after the call didn't go in their favor.
"We played a pretty sloppy game overall," he said. "Sometimes it happens. Obviously that was a big reason why we lost today, but we could have played better."
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.