Cubs

Why playing stupid is smart move for Cubs in pennant race

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Why playing stupid is smart move for Cubs in pennant race

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.

[MORE: Soler a player to watch if Cubs want to shake things up]

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.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”