Cubs U: As Cardinals await, Maddon's bunch still learning how to win


Cubs U: As Cardinals await, Maddon's bunch still learning how to win

Sometimes it seems like Joe Maddon is holding a life seminar rather than meeting with the press, working through the psychology of it all.

The Cubs manager is a sort of mad scientist who likes to go against the grain, hitting the pitcher eighth and turning road trips into costume parties.

[RELATED - Maddon trying to keep young Cubs loose through struggles]

Maddon's latest class at Cubs University is teaching young, inexperienced players how to win consistently and instilling a winning culture in a franchise nicknamed "The Lovable Losers.'

"[Learning how to win] is really important," Maddon said. "It's important to think that as the game gets deeper and it's close, that you're going to win it somehow. There's also the alternative side, where, as the game gets deeper and closer, you feel like you're going to lose it somehow.

"That's the culture you definitely don't want to create. I've been on teams where you just can feel that. They know that and then sure enough, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy in a negative way. You don't want that.

"Right now, the needle is pointing in the right direction."

Maddon said this all before his team dropped the final two games to the Milwaukee Brewers, who left the weekend series at Wrigley Field with the worst record in baseball, even after the back-to-back victories. The Brewers responded to the series win by firing manager Ron Roenicke Sunday evening.

But Maddon was still positive even after Sunday's loss, sounding almost chipper while sporting his personalized Blackhawks sweater.

It's that attitude that helped lure veteran catcher David Ross to Chicago's North Side.

"[A winning culture] starts at the top," veteran catcher David Ross said, crediting the Cubs front office with making moves that have improved the clubhouse dynamic. "Joe definitely is a huge influence. That's one of the reasons I came here is because it made a statement on how much they were wanting to win.

"Joe's doing a great job. He's been on a ton of winning teams, has a great track record and it's because, I believe, he's positive. When in doubt, find a positive outlook on something.

"It's easy to look at the negative, especially as a coach or manager. He doesn't do that. He knows how hard this game is. He's a very detailed person, which is nice. He's not anal in the sense of just nitpicking every small mistake. He sees the big picture."

[RELATED - Kris Bryant keeping his head up despite recent struggles]

Ross and Jon Lester won a championship in Boston in 2013 and they headline a group of veteran voices in the Cubs clubhouse that passes along messages from Maddon and the coaching staff.

That's key on a roster packed with young guys who are still trying to figure out their identity as players, let alone how to win on a consistent basis.

"I can't overstate how important the veterans have been to this whole thing as far as leading the charge in the clubhouse and on the bench during the game," Maddon said. "These guys have been spectacular.

"Our veterans are great at staying in touch with our kids and really encouraging them. I'm very fortunate as a manager to have that kind of help in the clubhouse.

"It's one thing for the staff to put [a message] out there. It's another for the veteran players to put it out there. That's when it really sticks."

Lester is a good example for Maddon to point to as the Cubs manager tries to instill the right habits in the young players.

After struggling through four starts to being the 2015 campaign, Lester finally showed why he earned that $155 megadeal with a dominant performance in a 1-0 win Friday.
Still, after the game, you couldn't tell he had just won. His message was still the same, like the chorus of that Jay Z song - "On to the next one."

[MORE - Maddon, Cubs trying to 'unearth' Soler with lineup switch]

Lester refuses to get complacent and continues to keep the same work ethic, win or lose. He's loving the youthful energy with the Cubs right now and the dance parties in the locker room after victories.

"It's fun. Especially for us older guys. I've never really been around anything like it," Lester said. "... It's hard to win a game in the big leagues. You should celebrate it. Regardless of how pretty or how ugly it is.

"You enjoy it and the thing I've really liked - especially from these young guys - is they're able to separate it. They're able to have their fun, celebrate their wins.

"Tomorrow is a new day. You show up the next day and you do it all over again. That's the beginning of a really good team when you're able to separate each individual day. It's a long season. You have to separate the losses with the wins, then show up the next day and try to do the same thing."

That's the type of process and mindset Maddon points to as examples of what sets winning teams apart.

"You win hard for 30 minutes, you lose hard for 30 minutes and move on," Maddon said. "I love the guys like that - [Lester] probably had a beer or two and thought about it. So he gets over the moment, he's thinking about the next team he's going to pitch against and how he's gotta be better.

"Twenty-four hours can make a huge difference in anybody's life and and in anybody's game. If anything, I want our guys to turn the page, get to the next game, good or bad. That's one thing I've learned - what a difference 24 hours can make. It's incredible."

One of the staples of Maddon's style is each game carrying the same amount of weight. Whether it's a spring training contest, a regular season game or a postseason series.

When players start to look at some games as "bigger" or more important than others, it lets pressure creep in.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Still, the Cubs have a nice measuring stick in front of them this week - a four game series in St. Louis with a first-place Cardinals team that is rallying after losing ace Adam Wainwright for the season.

"This is a good test," Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel said. "We gotta win these games. To be the best, you gotta beat the best. These guys are playing hot and we're going into their territory now.

"We'll find out what we're made of in this series."

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.