Joe Maddon's bullpen moves backfire as Chicago Cubs lose NL Central to Milwaukee Brewers

Nancy Armour
Cubs pitcher Jesse Chavez was one of six relievers manager Joe Maddon called upon Monday.

CHICAGO — Joe Maddon's gamble cost the Chicago Cubs the NL Central title. 

The price might wind up being even higher.

The team that controlled the division -- heck, the entire NL -- for the last three months now finds itself in a fight for its postseason life, forced into a wild-card game after a 3-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday afternoon. While there are plenty of folks who came up short -- MVP candidate Javy Baez and your 1-for-4 day, this falls squarely on Maddon and his bullpen management.

As will what would go down as one of the biggest collapses in Cubs history should Chicago come up short again Tuesday.

With his bullpen already short-handed because of Pedro Strop's hamstring injury, Maddon blew through six relievers against the Brewers. Granted, Cole Hamels will be available to pitch, but Maddon already has to reduce his roster for the playoffs.

You do the math. 

"We have to configure that," Maddon said. "(But) we should have plenty of bullpen help tomorrow." 

Yes, but how effective will some of those relievers be?

After pitching two innings Monday, Jesse Chavez has now pitched six in four appearances -- and that's just since Wednesday. Maddon used Steve Cishek for a third consecutive day, and sixth time in the last week. Jaime Garcia pitched on back-to-back days for the first time since Aug. 12, and Maddon said he'll need to be careful with him Tuesday. 

"It's October baseball," Cishek said. "I'm going to say I'm good no matter what."

This is a predicament the Cubs did not need to find themselves in, however. 

Maddon is one of the best managers in the game. But if there's a knock on him, it's his management of his pitching staff, his relievers in particular. Remember Game 7 of the World Series? Or how Strop wound up with that hamstring injury? 

You can question whether Maddon was too quick to give Jose Quintana the hook after 5 2/3 innings. Quintana had a career record of 6-2 against the Brewers, including 4-1 this season, before the game.

Yes, the Brewers were getting after him, tagging him for four hits in the first three innings, including an RBI single by likely MVP Christian Yelich. Still, it was early, and Quintana looked perhaps the best he had all game in retiring the Brewers in order in the fourth inning. 

But after another single to Yelich to start the sixth, Maddon had seen enough and replaced Quintana with Chavez. 

The move paid off initially, as Chavez struck out Ryan Braun and got out of the inning with a double play. He set Milwaukee down 1-2-3 in the seventh, too. But when Chavez's spot in the order came up in the bottom of the seventh, Maddon pinch-hit for him. 

"The game was tied," Maddon said. "You've got to take that shot." 

Actually, you don't. The Cubs already had two outs at that point. Wouldn't it have been better to roll the dice with Chavez and hope that he could hold in the eighth? It quickly became a moot point, as Tommy La Stella grounded out. 

That's when the wheels came off.

Justin Wilson came out to pitch the eighth, and gave up a leadoff single to Orlando Arcia. A double to pinch-hitter Domingo Santana followed. 

Maddon yanked Wilson for Cishek, who gave up that RBI single to Cain. He then brought in Rosario, who retired Yelich on a strikeout – the first Cubs pitcher to make the likely MVP look human Monday – then promptly replaced Rosario with Brandon Kintzler.

That resulted in Ryan Braun’s insurance run, a single to center. 

"I'd like to have that pitch back to Arcia. That kind of set up the whole thing," Maddon said. "But otherwise, I thought we did a pretty good job." 

No, a pretty good job is what the Brewers bullpen did. Four Milwaukee relievers combined to allow two hits and one walk in 3 1/3 innings while striking out five.  

Now Milwaukee has two days off before the NLDS, and home-field advantage as long as it lasts in the NL playoffs. 

"We've still got one more game to play," Cishek said. "Thankfully we played well enough to have the season go on." 

Yes, but for how long? 

The Cubs endured a month without a day off and the lengthy absence of Kris Bryant, and still managed to hang onto the NL Central lead. But Maddon's bullpen madness was too much to overcome. 

So now the Cubs, the team that was on cruise control for the last three months, no longer control anything in the postseason.


Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour