PITTSBURGH – Jon Lester’s “Play Stupid” campaign makes sense to Joe Maddon.
They were the haves and the have-nots in the American League East while Lester pitched for the super-rich Boston Red Sox and Maddon managed the small-market Tampa Bay Rays.
The Cubs committed $180 million to Lester and Maddon to give the next phase of their rebuilding project some credibility. Lester looks around and sees the same nothing-to-lose attitude and young blue-chip talent that transformed Maddon’s 2008 Rays from a last-place team into a World Series contender.
“I kind of like he said that we played stupid, because I think that’s actually complimentary,” Maddon said. “But it really comes down to a naïvete. You’re just out there like full throttle. You’re not overanalyzing anything. You’re just in the moment. You’re playing hard and you believe you can do it.”
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
The Cubs are now 11 games over .500 after Tuesday night’s 5-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, riding a six-game winning streak and a why-not-us? sense of momentum.
The Rays built their franchise around young pitching. While the Cubs don’t have the same stockpile of elite arms – or blank canvas when it comes to franchise history – Jake Arrieta (12-6, 2.50 ERA) continues to look like someone who could start Game 1 of a playoff series.
“We were definitely full throttle all the time,” Maddon said. “There’s the point where you really like to have a lot of experience to rely upon in those difficult moments.
“And there are other times – you can think about your own life experience – where you didn’t know well enough to just walk into a difficult moment and just nail it because you didn’t overthink it.”
Arrieta shut down the Pirates (61-44), throwing seven scoreless innings while allowing only two hits and three walks before handing the game over to hard-throwing relievers Tommy Hunter and Justin Grimm.
The Cubs (58-47) knocked out J.A. Happ – one of Pittsburgh’s trade-deadline additions – in the fifth inning and finished with 14 hits (while leaving 15 men on base). Anthony Rizzo (4-for-5) is already on fire while Starlin Castro (two RBI doubles) showed signs of maybe ending this cold streak.
Jason Hammel pitched on that 2008 Rays team and believes the Cubs have a core that rivals Evan Longoria, B.J. (now Melvin) Upton and the tight-knit group that won 97 games that season.
“No offense to those guys, but these guys are even more impressive,” Hammel said. “It’s a very young lineup, and they’re going to take their lumps. But right now, it’s pretty fun to watch.”
The Cubs signed veterans with World Series rings like Lester and David Ross – and happily made Maddon the day-to-day public face of the franchise – so that they could shift the focus and take some of the heat off their young players.
But story time is just about over. These final 56 games will be revealing. Did anyone order the “Play Stupid” T-shirts yet?
“I can sit here until I’m blue in the face and talk to these guys about what to expect in the stretch run,” Lester said. “It doesn’t matter until you actually do it. The biggest thing that these guys can learn is just going through it, whether we’re there at the end or not. You just got to go through it and then you build on those experiences.”