Cubs

Joe Maddon manages like Cubs are already in playoffs

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Joe Maddon manages like Cubs are already in playoffs

Joe Maddon managed like the Cubs are already in the playoffs.

After so many years of talking about the future, the Cubs are in the moment now, a reflection of their Zen manager, a rookie-heavy lineup and a pitching staff that’s being conditioned for October.

Maddon followed his killer instinct in Thursday night’s 5-4 win over the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, yanking Jason Hammel with no outs in the fifth inning and using five different relievers to beat the defending World Series champs.

With that sense of urgency, the Cubs (59-48) moved into the second wild-card position, a half-game ahead of the Giants (59-49), passing the first test in what will be a difficult four-game series. 

“We did not want to let it slip away tonight,” Maddon said.

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Maddon had already watched the Giants chip away at a 5-0 deficit with Brandon Belt’s two-run homer in the fourth inning. Maddon had seen enough after Hammel walked back-to-back Giants on nine pitches and signaled for Justin Grimm.

“I did not want to let them back into that game right there,” Maddon said. “It’s been my experience when you get (to) the playoffs, there’s some really, really great work done in the fifth, sixth and seventh inning by relievers that never get any credit for it. 

“As we get into this particular juncture of the season, you don’t want to just give anything away, especially when you have a lead like that.”

The Giants built their dynasty on pitching, defense and clutch hitting, winning three World Series titles and 34 playoff games since 2010. Their underrated farm system keeps producing talent while manager Bruce Bochy adds to his Hall of Fame resume.

[MORE: Kris Bryant trying to see big picture in the middle of mental grind]

“They’re a very experienced team,” Maddon said. “You could feel or sense that they were feeling pretty good about where they were at. I thought we had to do something differently, just based on (how) I thought ‘Hammer’ had great velocity and stuff, but the command was not there tonight.”

Hammel looked visibly frustrated while walking off the mound after only 76 pitches and requested to speak with Maddon after the game.

Did you understand the decision?

“Yes and no,” Hammel said. “I felt like I had earned the right to get out of that situation. It is what it is. He leveled with me and we’re on the same page.  

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“I understand the magnitude of the situation and I don’t want to make a big deal of it. Obviously, as a competitor, I want to be out there cleaning up my own mess.”

Hammel is a good clubhouse guy who played on Maddon’s 2008 Tampa Bay Rays team that reached the World Series. Hammel is enjoying another good season on the North Side (6-5, 3.17 ERA, 120 strikeouts in 122 innings) and said he felt great physically after dealing with a hamstring issue last month.  

“It’s not a lack of confidence by any means,” Maddon said. “It’s just the moment. Every game has its own unique characteristics. If we didn’t have that rested of a bullpen, I probably would have chosen to do something differently.”

Maddon didn’t want to waste the 5-0 lead the Cubs built up with Jorge Soler’s two-out, two-run, line-drive single into left field in the first inning and Kyle Schwarber’s first career home run at Wrigley Field, a three-run bomb in the second.

The bullpen took it from there, with Grimm, Jason Motte, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon (17th save) combining to allow zero hits in four scoreless innings. (Tommy Hunter – the hard-throwing reliever the Cubs acquired from the Baltimore Orioles at the trade deadline – gave up a two-run homer to Brandon Crawford in the sixth inning.)   

“The bottom line is we won the ballgame,” Hammel said.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: