Cubs

Joe Maddon’s not-so-subtle message to Javier Baez as Cubs try to recreate a championship offense

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Joe Maddon’s not-so-subtle message to Javier Baez as Cubs try to recreate a championship offense

MILWAUKEE – Joe Maddon rarely criticizes his players in public and almost always spins in a positive direction, especially after brutal losses, elevating manager-speak with his verbal flourishes and attention-loving personality.  

That hopeful, non-confrontational style made it so interesting to hear how Maddon responded late Saturday night at the top of his postgame media session at Miller Park. Jason Heyward had just crushed a dramatic 11th-inning home run against the Milwaukee Brewers – and on his own Maddon immediately pointed out how the Cubs struck out 17 times twice within a week and somehow won both games.

Maddon doubled down on Sunday morning, sending a not-so-subtle message to Javier Baez and the other young hitters, knowing that the Brewers in July is nothing like the possibility of facing Max Scherzer twice in a five-game playoff series against the Washington Nationals.

“I was upset,” Maddon said. “We can’t expect to win the World Series again this year and have those kind of at-bats. We can’t. That’s a bad process. It’s a bad method.”

Message received? A starting lineup that didn’t feature Baez, Kyle Schwarber or Ian Happ responded during a sharp 4-2 win where the Cubs strung together four straight two-out hits off Brewers starter Zach Davies in a two-run sixth inning and later got homers from Victor Caratini (417 feet to the batter’s eye) and Kris Bryant (off the left-field foul pole).

Coincidence? The day after Baez went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts, Maddon didn’t rearrange his infield for his best defender and started a backup rookie catcher at first base while Anthony Rizzo rested a sore upper back.

Maddon said he wanted better outfield defense (Albert Almora Jr.) for starting pitcher John Lackey. Maddon said he would ride a hot hand with a professional hitter (Jon Jay) and kept day-game-after-night-game planning in mind.

“I know it’s just one game,” Maddon said, “but it’s happened a couple times recently, and I just want us to get away from that method right now. It starts with the coaches. It filters into the players. We’ve been nurturing this mindset. The second half’s been good. I don’t want us to fall backward.

“That’s my biggest concern. I thought we were making great strides in regard to opposite-field, situational hitting, moving the baseball, putting pressure on the defense. When you get to the latter part of the year, when you get to the playoffs, you’re facing good pitching all the time. And you got to go out there and be prepared for that.

“You got to force pitchers to get us out in the strike zone and not outside of the strike zone. That, to me, is the championship-caliber offensive mentality.”

Imagine the Los Angeles Dodgers adding Yu Darvish before the July 31 trade deadline and pairing him with a healthy Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill’s curveball and an array of bullpen options in front of lights-out closer Kenley Jansen.  

Maddon insisted the message wasn’t directed at Baez, who showed so much growth during last year’s playoffs, when he became the National League Championship Series co-MVP as the Cubs stormed back to eliminate the Dodgers.

“It’s directed at the whole team,” Maddon said. “Again, we need to force the other pitchers to get us out in the strike zone and not be so amenable.

“It’s a contagious method both ways. And I don’t want to see us back into that trap of giving away easy outs. I don’t want that. I want us to be tough outs. I want us to see pitches, use the whole field, et cetera, et cetera, so the message is for everybody.”

Baez is still young (24) and extremely productive as an elite defender with 13 homers and a .767 OPS. The Cubs understand his swing and personality will lead to boom-and-bust periods. This is someone with untapped potential – who has already accumulated more than 2,500 at-bats in pro ball and played parts of four seasons in the big leagues. 

“Listen, he’s been there before,” Maddon said, “and then he hits the ball in the upper deck, like the other day. I just know he’s got so much ability in right-center also, and I want him to utilize that.

“The same with Happ – you’ve seen the ball go to left-center a lot hard. I just want us to continue to nurture utilizing the whole field, making the pitcher get us out within the strike zone and not expanding so much.”

Where Happ made his big-league debut in the middle of May – and Schwarber got demoted to Triple-A Iowa this summer – Baez has been in the Cubs organization since 2011.

Maddon can write off last week’s 0-for-5 with five strikeouts against the White Sox as Javi Being Javi. But the manager also wasn’t all that impressed with that ball Baez launched on Friday night off ex-White Sox reliever Anthony Swarzak.

“Pitchers throw homers more than hitters hit ‘em,” Maddon said. “My point is, you can do that once in a while if the pitcher makes a mistake. But for the most part, major-league pitchers are able to throw the ball where they want to.

“And if you’re constantly just trying to do one thing – and that would be on the pull side – you’re really playing into their hands or their trap. And more often than not, they’re going to make the pitch that you can’t do that with.

“The more you do that, the less you’re going to see your happy pitch.”

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Joe Maddon tinkers with Cubs lineup hoping to jumpstart offense

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Joe Maddon tinkers with Cubs lineup hoping to jumpstart offense

The Cubs are "due."

That's a funny thought in general. For anybody or any team to be "due," that's saying that everything will even out eventually.

That's often true in baseball. But that's over the course of a 162-game season, far and away the longest sample size in professional sports. 

In an abbreviated postseason series, there really is no such thing as "due" because the season's over before you get a chance to see things even out.

The baseball gods don't ensure that everybody gets the same amount of luck at the same time. The sample size is absolutely too small for that. Plus, the Cubs have had plenty of luck and caught their fair share of breaks already this postseason.

So while it's easy to point to some of the Cubs numbers and say things like "they're not going to hit .162 as a team forever," that's not necessarily true because there are only two guaranteed games left in the 2017 for Joe Maddon and Co. It is absolutely possible the Cubs' season is over before they get a chance to correct their offensive woes.

Though, it would be pretty stunning to see the Cubs offense finish a 9-game October stint with Jon Lester and Jose Quintana as the team's leading hitters (both are 1-for-4, .250 average). 

Like a deliriously-happy, champagne-soaked Theo Epstein said early Friday morning in our nation's capital, "we always hit eventually."

So if I'm a betting man (which I'm not, unless you count fantasy sports), I'm betting on the Cubs offense finally waking from their fall slumber. 

They're simply too good to continue these numbers. This team has combined for a .513 OPS, which is essentially a team of Andres Blancos, a 33-year-old backup infielder who defined "light-hitting" with a .192 average and .549 OPS in 144 plate appearances this season.

The urgency is now a very real thing with the Cubs, and that's something — maybe the ONLY thing — that has really motivated this 2017 squad. They've really only played well when they've had a sense of urgency and they did not have that the first two games in Los Angeles.

Which is understandable. After such a physically, emotionally and mentally draining Game 5 that didn't end until early Friday morning, the team had to travel all the way across the entire continental U.S. only to wind up getting diverted to New Mexico where they sat on the tarmac for five hours.

Every single starting pitcher on the team was exhausted and working on short rest, and that's not to say anything about Wade Davis, who gave everything he had just to get the Cubs to the NLCS.

The Cubs have now had a full day off to clear their heads, get back to center and find their mojo again.

I'm betting that's exactly what they've done, because this team has proved over and over again how resilient they are. I mean, really, a 2-0 deficit is nothing for a team that stared down a 3-1 deficit in the World Series a year ago.

In an effort to help jump-start the offense, Maddon has switched around the Cubs lineup for Game 3:

1. Ben Zobrist - 2B
2. Kyle Schwarber - LF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Willson Contreras - C
6. Jon Jay - CF
7. Addison Russell - SS
8. Jason Heyward - RF
9. Kyle Hendricks - P

Schwarber hitting second is how the Cubs won Games 6 and 7 of the World Series last year, though Zobrist was hitting fifth at the time. 

No Baez to start the game, as he's a bad matchup for Yu Darvish - who is tough on right-handers - and is in the midst of an 0-for-19 stretch to start the postseason.

Prediction

Cubs 5, Dodgers 2

The Cubs started out the two-game set in LA by having a few good at-bats against the game's best pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) before things got awful against the Dodgers bullpen.

But if we're talking about being "due," that Dodgers bullpen is due for a regression on some level. They've been absolutely incredible this postseason, allowing only one baserunner to the Cubs in eight innings thus far.

Breaking things down individually, there are positive signs for several guys:

—Kris Bryant struck out only three times in 8 at-bats in LA, which is actually an improvement considering he struck out 10 times in 20 at-bats in the NLDS.

—Addison Russell lined a homer to left off Rich Hill for the Cubs' only run in Game 2. He had some really good at-bats in Game 5 and the game's biggest hit when he doubled home two runs off Max Scherzer.

—Javy Baez walked in Game 2. I mean, if that's not enough of a reason for positivity, what is??

Either way, the Cubs offense has their hands full against Yu Darvish (10-12, 3.86 ERA) and Alex Wood (16-3, 2.72 ERA) the next two games and if they win one of those two, Kershaw awaits in Game 5 Thursday.

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

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USA TODAY

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”

It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.

There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.

There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.

· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.

“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.

“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”

· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.

“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”

· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.

But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.

“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”

· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.

Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.

“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.

“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”

· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.

By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.