In the Cubs' 8-4 win over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday night at Wrigley Field, center fielder Dexter Fowler came up big early and late, contributing a couple of acrobatic catches in the first few frames to go with a majestic home run in the bottom of the eighth. But one misplay in center field came close to drastically changing the narrative of Chicago's night (Game 2 of the NLCS is scheduled for Sunday night at 8 ET/7 CT, live on FS1).
Fowler's topsy-turvy evening began with a pair of brilliant rally-killing catches, and they loomed large given the Cubs' narrow 3-1 lead at the time.
"The defense was spectacular," manager Joe Maddon said after the game. "It was unbelievably good. And that's probably the main reason why we won that game."
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With one out in the third, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner lined a sure double to right-center, but Fowler got a tremendous jump and made a perfectly timed diving grab.
According to Statcast™, Fowler's jump took -0.07 seconds -- meaning he was moving before the ball hit the bat -- and he covered 54 feet in 3.5 seconds to make the catch. The ball Turner hit had an exit velocity of 98.6 mph and a launch angle of 15 degrees. Batted balls with those traits were a hit 61 percent of the time this year.
"I was just trying to go get the ball," Fowler said after the game. "That's my job out there. I'm the last go out there. So I've just got to run and try to get it."
An inning later, catcher Carlos Ruiz hit a line drive to left-center, which required more ground for Fowler to cover. He managed to sprint the 63 feet and make the play, which, based on Statcast™ distance and hang time (4.0 seconds), is a catch that has been made just 43 percent of the time in 2016.
"I don't want to say I don't expect those plays to be made," said Cubs starter Jon Lester, "but when Dex makes those two diving plays in the outfield, obviously those are huge, huge momentum changes for us."
Gif: Dexter Fowler's 2 diving catches
But Fowler's night was almost marred by a misplay in the top of the eighth. On Adrián González's game-tying single off Aroldis Chapman with two outs and the bases loaded, Fowler bobbled away a potential chance to nail the tying run at the plate.
Gonzalez turned around a 102.3-mph Chapman heater, ripping it 104.7 mph off the bat into center field -- the fourth-hardest hit the Cubs closer has allowed all year, according to Statcast™, and the hardest-hit ball against him in the postseason. The line drive reached Fowler, who began the play positioned a very shallow 311 feet from home plate, in just 2.8 seconds. (For some context on positioning, Fowler was 324 feet from home plate on the Ruiz catch earlier in the game, and the shallowest center fielders in the league average 306 feet.)
When Fowler got to the ball, Chase Utley, the runner on second, had not yet reached third base. If Fowler had fielded Gonzalez's hit cleanly, he might well have had a shot at throwing Utley out at home, which would have ended the inning and preserved a 3-2 lead for the Cubs. Instead, Fowler bobbled the ball and could only lob it back to the infield as Utley crossed the plate to knot the score.
There's no guarantee Fowler would have thrown out Utley, who went from second to home in 6.84 seconds, his sixth-fastest such time in 2016. For starters, Fowler doesn't have a strong arm, averaging just 88.9 mph on his "competitive throws" this season, which is basically league average for a center fielder. And of his six outfield assists in 2016, not one came on a play at the plate. But given how quickly the hit got to Fowler and Utley's position on the basepaths, a play at the plate was certainly within the realm of possibility
• Fowler's belt can't keep up with his brilliant defense
In the end, it was all rendered moot. In the bottom half of the eighth, Miguel Montero launched a tiebreaking pinch-hit grand slam for Chicago, and Fowler followed with a home run, going back-to-back with his teammate to put the game away.
Fowler's moon shot had a projected distance of 362 feet according to Statcast™, and left the bat with an exit velocity of 99.4 mph and a launch angle of 39 degrees. Fowler hit just one homer all season with a higher launch angle (44 degrees off Philadelphia's Jerad Eickhoff on May 28).
"Everybody was still juiced," Fowler said. "We knew we could do that at any time."