Cubs

Why is Joe Maddon still harping on bad defense and waiting for Cubs to play with more focus?

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USA TODAY

Why is Joe Maddon still harping on bad defense and waiting for Cubs to play with more focus?

SAN FRANCISCO – There is no way around this: The Cubs can’t expect to beat a Madison Bumgarner in the playoffs – and the type of team the San Francisco Giants used to be – without sharpening their entire game. 
 
That is assuming the Cubs regroup and outlast a mediocre division after heart-and-soul catcher Willson Contreras suffered what could be a devastating hamstring injury during Wednesday’s 3-1 loss at AT&T Park. The Cubs already had trouble seeing the finish line in Addison Russell’s recovery from a strained right foot and don’t expect their All-Star shortstop to be ready to return when he’s eligible to come off the disabled list this weekend.
 
But injuries alone can’t explain away why the Cubs haven’t looked locked in defensively. It’s been the point of emphasis. Joe Maddon’s research into year-after effects led him to the Seattle Mariners and how Lou Piniella’s teams dropped from 116 wins in 2001 to 93 the next season and regressed on defense.
 
Whether or not this told the entire story about the Mariners, it sounded good and made sense to Maddon, who unveiled his slogan at Cubs Convention in January: “If we catch the ball and pitch the ball like we did last year, we shall ‘D-peat.’”
 
Right on cue in spring training, the “D-peat” T-shirts rolled off the assembly line and into the clubhouse. Now it’s the middle of August and a manager who rarely criticizes his players is still harping on defense and frustrated with the sloppy errors and mental lapses.     
 
“I don’t know why,” Maddon said. “The work’s the same. The guys are the same. To me, defense is a lot of just being here, being present tense, being right in this moment. 
 
“Not letting previous at-bats or moments creep into the thought process. So maybe in some awkward way, maybe our focus just isn’t as finely tuned on defense. There’s no way for me to gauge that.”
 
Knowing why and gauging that are part of the manager’s job description, but defense was supposed to be the constant for the defending World Series champs that would help bail out a pitching staff stressed from back-to-back playoff runs and take pressure off the young hitters in the lineup.    
 
“I did not expect what we did last year, because that was like above and beyond,” Maddon said. “I do expect us to be really good at this. And to this point, I don’t know where we rank in a lot of different efficiencies – or deficiencies. But just the eyeball test – we haven’t been as good.”
 
The Cubs actually rank third in the majors in defensive efficiency, but that’s still a steep drop from maybe being the best defensive team in baseball history.
 
Maddon definitely sounded annoyed after Tuesday’s night loss to a last-place team, watching a Javier Baez error help set up Buster Posey’s three-run homer and Ian Happ failing to stop a ball that skipped underneath his glove and created an insurance run.
 
Happ is a rookie without a natural position – and it’s not fair to compare anyone at second base to Baez – but the little things add up eventually. The Giants began to manufacture the go-ahead run in the seventh inning on Wednesday afternoon when Happ couldn’t make a diving, game-changing play on Denard Span’s infield single. It’s a sign of how many moving parts the Cubs are dealing with – and that shifting players around the field and playing to Maddon’s love of versatility won’t automatically create the next Ben Zobrist.
 
“Think of how many games has Happ even played at second,” Zobrist said. “He needs to at least have some time there to get his feet wet and kind of get that feel. He’s been playing a lot more outfield than the infield. And Javy hasn’t played shortstop as much. He played some, but to start playing it every day like he has been since Addie’s been on the DL is different for him, too.
 
“Maybe there’s a little something there where you got a couple guys that haven’t played as much up the middle together.
 
“All I can tell you from my perspective is: I know that those guys are doing as much – if not more – work now than they had been earlier in the season, or last year for that matter, as far as Javy’s concerned. It’s definitely not a lack of work or effort.”
 
The margin for error is so thin when Bumgarner is at full strength and shutting down the Cubs for seven innings (except for the first-pitch fastball Albert Almora Jr. drove over the left-center-field wall for a solo home run). But the Cubs already understand how it works and what it takes in October.  
 
“I want us to make the routine play more routinely,” Maddon said. “Not even the spectacular play – I’m just talking about the routine stuff. Play catch. And if we make the great play, I’ll take it.
 
“It’s a mental thing where you just have to raise your mental focus out there to make sure that it doesn’t happen, because we have to catch the ball. 
 
“All that stuff is interrelated. When we make mistakes that we shouldn’t make, I start counting pitches that we’re now throwing that we shouldn’t have to throw otherwise. That’s what really concerns me."

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

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USA TODAY

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.

Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.

It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.

By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.

“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.

“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.

“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”

Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.

But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.

“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”

For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:

David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF

The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.

By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.

"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.

“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.

“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”

But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.

“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”