Cubs

Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs

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Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs

On the other side of the visiting clubhouse, you could hear “Joy to the World” blasting from the manager’s office on Sunday afternoon at Miller Park.

The Cubs had just beaten the Milwaukee Brewers and won their 97th game, an astonishing number for a young team that had averaged almost 93 losses across the previous five seasons.

That Three Dog Night song summed up Joe Maddon and the intoxicating feeling around this franchise.

Especially in Wrigleyville, the manager gets too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when the team loses.

But the Cubs wouldn’t have the third-best record in baseball without Maddon pumping up their confidence, energizing the fan base, distracting the Chicago media and pushing all the right in-game buttons.

There’s no one the Cubs would rather have standing in the visiting dugout on Wednesday night at PNC Park, looking out at the Pittsburgh Pirates through those distinctive glasses in what should be a high-stress, low-scoring National League wild-card game.

“Joe is the perfect manager for this team and this situation,” said Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations. “It’s authentic. He brings everybody up around him, keeps it loose. It’s great for young players. They love being around him. There’s no doubt we’re not here today without him.”

[MORE CUBS: Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins]

The perfect storm started last October with Andrew Friedman leaving the Tampa Bay Rays to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, triggering an escape clause in Maddon’s contract.

Since taking over at Clark and Addison in October 2011, Epstein had inherited/fired Mike Quade, hired/fired Dale Sveum and chosen Rick Renteria as a bridge manager with player development in mind.

With Renteria in limbo — and already told he would be back in 2015 — Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer met Maddon and his wife, Jaye, at an RV park along Florida’s Gulf Coast. They hung out at “The Cousin Eddie” and had drinks together on Navarre Beach.

By Halloween, the team had issued a press release headlined: “Cubs Fire Manager Rick Renteria.”

But in giving Maddon a five-year, $25 million contract, the Cubs didn’t get another free agent past his prime. This is a manager at the absolute top of his game.

“He lets us be ourselves,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who last offseason made a point to visit Maddon at Ava, his Italian restaurant in Tampa. “He really doesn’t care what we do, as long as we’re ready to play — and play hard.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta will be unstoppable in October]

Maddon is a brand now. That comes with the instant respect he didn’t have walking into the Devil Rays after three-plus decades working in the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels organization, waiting for that shot.

“It’s somewhat easier to get my point across now,” Maddon said. “I didn’t have the same credibility, in a sense, (back then). There were a lot of tough conversations that first two years with guys that really weren’t very good major-league players and thought they were.

“Wow, that was like some really delusional stuff that you had to deal with behind closed doors. It was really bizarre, because I had come from a really good situation in Anaheim.”

Jonny Gomes, the veteran outfielder now going to the playoffs with the Kansas City Royals, remembered how much Maddon wanted to take down the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the same way the Cubs have thrived in a division with three teams that won at least 97 games.

Tampa Bay finished last in the American League East in 2006 and 2007 — losing 197 games combined — before a stunning run to the 2008 World Series.

“The biggest thing that Joe brought was belief,” Gomes said. “I remember at the time when he took over, there were actually talks of Tampa leaving the AL East (and) maybe us going to the Central. And I think player-wise and fan base-wise, we were like totally on board.

“I remember one of the first things Joe said was: ‘Hell, I don’t want to leave the AL East.’ This was powerhouse Red Sox-Yankees. (Joe says): ‘I want to win the East.’ I remember being like: ‘Um ... OK?’

“It just proved what can happen in between the lines, in the clubhouse, on the plane and on the bus when the captain of your ship not only sets goals like that but backs it and puts people in situations to succeed.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Addison Russell is ready for playoff spotlight]

Maddon is the 61-year-old fraternity brother from Lafayette College who loves The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen but can still relate to all the millennials in the clubhouse listening to rap music and staring at their iPhones.

Maddon is the blue-collar guy from Hazleton, Pa., who spends most of his time in Chicago on the Gold Coast, shopping and eating at high-end restaurants.

Maddon is the baseball lifer who doesn’t believe in being the first one to the stadium or taking batting practice or leading the league in eyewash.

“Joe’s been the perfect manager for this group,” Hoyer said. “He’s had exactly the right touch at the right moment. He knows when to step on the gas, when to give guys hugs, when to give guys rest. He’s been ideal.

“It is hard to imagine us having this kind of success with this young group without having Joe at the helm.”

Maddon is not the micromanager telling coaches how to do their jobs or the old-school guy going with his gut and ignoring The Geek Department.

Maddon is the perfect ringmaster for the Wrigley Field circus, bringing Warren the Pink Flamingo into the interview room/dungeon, part of a rotating cast of characters that included Simon the Magician and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin.

[MORE CUBS: Dan Haren will retire once Cubs finish playoff run]

“Maybe you’re surprised (when) you’re walking on the concourse and he’s rolling in a cheetah,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “But you’re not surprised at the level of how it begins with the players and how much they respect him.

“That’s his reputation. He relates to every single player on this team. He just has a special kind of charisma, and he keeps everyone loose but focused. And everyone plays confident. There’s no way to objectively measure it, but it’s just a huge part of this season.”

The Cubs should have finished with a 90-72 record, according to the Pythagorean model, and their run differential drops to plus-64 when you take away that 17-0 blowout victory over the Cleveland Indians on June 17 at Progressive Field.

The Cubs didn’t have a losing month or a losing streak that went longer than five games, winning 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings.

“I think I’m less important (in the playoffs),” Maddon said. “It’s all about the players. My intent in the postseason is I really try to stay out of the way as much as possible. Probably the only impact you should have is hopefully within the bullpen and getting some guys in there at the right time. But overall, it’s about players.”

But someone has to point the players in the right direction, handle the egos, deflate the pressure inside the clubhouse, synthesize all the analytical information, make real-time decisions on national television and deal with the media before and after every game.

For this team, this city and this moment, the Cubs couldn’t have found a better manager than Maddon.

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: