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.
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“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.