Chicago Cubs: The baserunning blunder that lost Wednesday’s game

Jul 21, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Chicago Cubs second baseman Robinson Chirinos (29) walks off the field after St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (not pictured) hit a one run walk-off single during the tenth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 21, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Chicago Cubs second baseman Robinson Chirinos (29) walks off the field after St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (not pictured) hit a one run walk-off single during the tenth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /
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The final inning of Wednesday night’s Chicago Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals game in St. Louis provided a stark illustration of the kind of blunder that can turn a team’s season from success to failure.

The blunder, committed by Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, occurred in the 10th inning of what at the time was a 2-2 tie game. Did that blunder cost Chicago the game? No one can say for sure, but it’s entirely possible.

A blunder that just cannot happen for the Cubs

What is beyond question is that Rizzo, a professional with a solid reputation who is having an indifferent season, did blunder. He committed a mental error — exactly the kind of thing ballplayers decry as unacceptable — and it removed any chance at victory.

Having made the final out of the ninth inning, Rizzo was the runner placed at second base when the first extra inning began. The first Cubs hitter, Javier Baez, lashed a hard single to right field, but the ball was hit so hard and on such a line that Rizzo had to hesitate off second base and only reached third.

Given that nobody was out and that the play left the Cubs with runners at first and third, Rizzo’s failure to score on the Baez hit was not the blunder. It was in fact understandable and prudent.

The blunder occurred on the next play. After T.J. McFarland replaced John Gant on the mound for St. Louis, Ian Happ slapped a ground ball up the middle.

Anybody who has played youth travel baseball knows Rizzo’s responsibility in such a first-and-third, none out, late-innings situation. He must break on contact, forcing the defense to make a decision: Do they attempt to cut down the runner at home – leaving the Cubs with runners at first and second and just one out? Or do they concede the lead run in a bid for a double play?

In that situation, it was the responsibility of Cubs third base coach  Willie Harris to remind Rizzo ahead of time to break for the plate on contact. Absent evidence  to the contrary, the presumption is that Harris did so. It was Rizzo who failed to deliver.

Had he run immediately, Rizzo would have scored without a play. But instead of breaking on contact, Rizzo hesitated. Happ’s grounder took Cardinal shortstop Edmundo Sosa toward second base – and not coincidentally away from any possible attempt to cut down Rizzo, had he run immediately. Sosa took the only course the play left him, stepping on second to force Baez.

But then instead of throwing to first to complete the double play, Sosa noticed Rizzo’s late break to the plate. For the Cardinals, this was found money. Sosa pivoted and threw to Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina in plenty of time to erase Rizzo.

Instead of a 3-2 Chicago lead with two out, the Cardinals got the absolute best of both worlds: They erased the lead runner, prevented any run from scoring, and still got the double play they had been looking for.

McFarland then retired pinch hitter Robinson Chirinos on a fly ball to end the inning. In the bottom of the 10th, Molina singled home the St. Louis automatic runner, Paul Goldschmidt, to turn what should have been a 3-3 tie into a 3-2 Cardinals victory.

Anthony Rizzo’s baserunning blunder had cost Chicago a shot at winning the game.

Rizzo has been a front-rank ballplayer for years. He’s a three-time All-Star with a 36.4 career WAR. The Cubs would not have won the 2016 World Series without his substantial contributions.

But he is among several veteran Cubs in the midst of complacent, which is to say bad, seasons. The end of Wednesday night’s game provided one more illustration why it is time for the core of this Cubs team to be broken up.

The team’s front office management saw what happened on the field Wednesday. Cubs exec Jed Hoyer will and ought to read such inexcusable missteps as a sign that only a substantially new cast of characters can lead  to improvement.

Absent a shakeup, Hoyer will find himself presiding over an under-achieving fourth-place team, which is what he has right now.

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Rizzo’s blunder provided a blunt illustration of why such a personnel shakeup is needed, and why that shakeup almost certainly will take place in the next 10 days.