Cubs

How Jon Jay brought Cubs clubhouse together for big finish

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USA TODAY

How Jon Jay brought Cubs clubhouse together for big finish

Jon Jay didn’t feel the World Series hangover. While the 2017 Cubs got pulled in so many different directions, Jay wasn’t living off last season or focusing on his personal brand or thinking there’s always next year for a young team with money and big names.   

Sensing another moment that could become a distraction, Jay called a team meeting immediately after the Milwaukee Brewers swept the defending champs on Sept. 10. There were three weeks left in the regular season as the Cubs gathered in a Wrigley Field weight room after getting outscored 20-3 that weekend. The Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals had both pulled within two games of first place. What the Cubs did next would define their season.

“It was just a reminder of how much we had fought at that point to be in the position we were at,” Jay said. “Everything was OK. That was the message all year with the veteran guys: ‘Hey, we’re going to be fine.’ That’s something I just preached all year: ‘Hey, we’re good enough. We got enough talent. Just keep playing baseball.’ Sometimes, it’s unexplainable what happens in baseball.”

That last line won’t fit easily on yet another Joe Maddon T-shirt, but it sums up a team that staggered into the All-Star break with a 43-45 record, a zero run differential (399-399) and questions about whether the front office would be trade-deadline buyers and if the clubhouse would come together or completely collapse.

Jay would never take credit for this, because at the age of 32 and after eight seasons in the big leagues he understands how complicated this game can be. His face remained expressionless when a reporter approached his locker and asked him about the short meeting. He won’t be holding court with the national media before and after the playoff games that begin Friday night at Nationals Park in Washington.

But from that point, the Cubs won seven games in a row, nine of their next 10 and 13 of their last 16 before clinching the National League Central title and eliminating the Cardinals from the wild-card race. That run included a 9-2 burst against Milwaukee and St. Louis, the Cubs committing only two errors during that time while outscoring their division rivals 58-29.

The Cubs played with a focus and an urgency that had been lacking at times. Jay’s 15-pitch at-bat and leadoff single against Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff became a symbol for the grinding team that won 10-inning games on back-to-back nights at Miller Park. Ben Zobrist retweeted the MLB.com Gameday sequence from the official Cubs Twitter account and called it the “best at-bat all season by anyone anywhere.”

“Jon Jay, to me, the 2017 Cubbies don’t go without him,” Zobrist said. “He picked us up on the field and off the field in a lot of ways when we struggled. He wasn’t around last year to talk about last year, so he was so focused on this year. He’s like: ‘OK, well I want to win a championship with you guys now. You guys did it last year, but turn the page.’ He definitely helped us do that.”

This meeting won’t go down in history next to the Jason Heyward Rain Delay Speech, but it illuminates how fragile and puzzling this team could be in the aftermath of an epic celebration. Maddon can say his methods are validated now – and no manager had guided this franchise into the playoffs for three straight seasons in more than a century – but he doesn’t have that many buttons to push beyond his patience and positive nature.

“Joe goes hands off, even when he knows things aren’t going the way we expect,” said Zobrist, a Maddon ally from their years together with the Tampa Bay Rays. “He just expects (it from) the players: If you feel like something needs to be said, then bring everybody together and say it.

“When there was some moments where people felt something needed to be said, they called the team meetings. That’s what good teams do. They don’t talk behind each other’s backs. They say: ‘Let’s come together. Let’s talk about this. Let’s turn the page and figure it out.’

“Yeah, it had to happen a little bit more this year, probably because we all knew that we were underperforming.”

The players met near the end of an 0-for-6 West Coast trip (and didn’t bother with Maddon’s “Anchorman” costumes for the long flight back home to Chicago). The Cubs had to deal with the fallout from Miguel Montero’s classic rant in Washington in late June (when roughly half the group skipped a visit to Donald Trump’s White House). Maddon called a we’re-still-in-good-shape meeting before a July 6 game at Wrigley Field (and then watched the Brewers maul the Cubs in an 11-2 game).

“So the second half, how many meetings did we have? One,” Zobrist said. “That Milwaukee series was not good for us, so I think it was good just to say, ‘All right, so what? Forget it.’

“There were multiple times beyond those meetings that I think just kind of kept everybody together as a team. Team dinners, guys hanging out, going to somebody’s room at a hotel, things like that, which nobody knows about or nobody talks about.

“Those kinds of things are not technically team meetings. They’re not saying everybody’s got to be there. But it’s a way that we connect.”

Jay has been the exact glue guy the Cubs envisioned when they signed him to a one-year, $8 million contract in late November, hoping he could take over some of David Ross’s leadership responsibilities, mentor Albert Almora Jr., the young outfielder who also grew up in Miami, and change the lineup dynamics (.296 batting average, .374 on-base percentage) as a different kind of left-handed hitter.

Now Jay – a player drafted and developed under The Cardinal Way – sees the parallels to the 2011 St. Louis team that didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season and wound up winning the franchise’s 11th World Series title.

“Absolutely,” Jay said. “Just get in and get hot. It’s not how you get in. It’s just about getting in.”

If you can't wait for baseball to be back, take a look at the Cubs' spring training schedule

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USA TODAY

If you can't wait for baseball to be back, take a look at the Cubs' spring training schedule

Set your alarm, there are only three more months till baseball is back.

The Cubs announced their spring training schedule Monday, getting folks all amped up for the 34 exhibition games in February and March.

Spring game action gets started Feb. 23 out in Arizona, with the Cubs taking on the Milwaukee Brewers to kick off Cactus League play. The Cubs' first home spring game at Sloan Park in Mesa comes the next day, Feb. 24.

In addition to a 32-game Cactus League slate, the Cubs will take on the Cleveland Indians in a pair of exhibition games in Las Vegas. That 2016 World Series rematch comes March 17 and 18.

And of course, there will be three meetings with the White Sox, as both Chicago teams play their spring schedule out in Arizona. Those "Cactus Crosstown" games will be played Feb. 27 and March 10 in Mesa and March 16 in Glendale.

Here's the full schedule:

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

Jake Arrieta in a Brewers uniform?

That's not a sight Cubs fans would like to see, but the North Siders' I-94 rivals are apparently keen on trying to add Arrieta, the free-agent pitcher who's been one of the National League's top arms for the past several seasons.

The Cubs have their own decision to make on whether or not they're going to pursue re-signing Arrieta, a guy who over the past three seasons has posted a 2.71 ERA and struck out 589 batters, winning 54 games in 94 starts for a team that won the 2016 World Series and has advanced to three consecutive NL Championship Series.

The downside to losing Arrieta is obvious, as the Cubs would lose a huge part of their formidable starting rotation, but there would be an added downside if Arrieta were to remain in the NL Central and repeatedly haunt his former team.

Given Arrieta's track record, adding him would make sense for any team in the majors, but the Brewers in particular could use a front-of-the-line starting pitcher to boost their chances of besting the Cubs for the Central crown. The Brew Crew staged a surprising threat to do just that in 2017, perhaps proving that their rebuilding effort has yielded fruit ahead of schedule.

But there are questions in that rotation, with Jimmy Nelson expected to miss time next season after having shoulder surgery. Chase Anderson was great last season, and Zach Davies was solid, too. Brewers starters posted an ERA of 4.10 on the season, good for fifth in the NL. The four teams ahead of them, including the Cubs, all made the playoffs. Adding an arm as good as Arrieta's could make the difference in jumping past the Cubs in the Central and getting the Crew to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

And it'd be a plus for the Brewers to make it so Arrieta couldn't shut down their hitters anymore. In 15 career starts against the Crew, Arrieta is 8-4 with a 2.74 ERA. However, they'd surely love to have him call Miller Park home. He's never lost there in five starts, boasting a 2.03 ERA with 30 strikeouts.

There's an argument to be made that Arrieta would be able to seek revenge on the Cubs no matter what team he ends up pitching for, be it an NL team facing off against the Cubs in the playoffs or an American League squad meeting the Cubs in the World Series. After all, as Scott Boras put it, signing Arrieta is a ticket to "Playoffville."

But should Arrieta make the short drive to Wisconsin and set up shop in America's Dairyland, turning the Brewers into a legitimate playoff contender and challenger to the Cubs' grip on the NL Central crown? Well, consider the Cubs-Brewers rivalry cranked up to 11.