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Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

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AP

Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

WASHINGTON – Joe Maddon plays mind games and sends messages through the media and sometimes just runs with whatever idea pops into his head.

Maddon turned on a big-picture question from a New York Times reporter in late August, essentially skipping over the comparisons between the 2016 Cubs and the 2017 Dodgers and jumping to how much he would love to face the group on the Sports Illustrated cover labeled as: “Best. Team. Ever?”

Bring it on, Maddon signaled, looking forward to when the defending World Series champs would be at full strength and saying how much he would love that matchup against the Dodgers in October.

Well, here it is, a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series, Game 1 on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, Clayton Kershaw and the rest of a $200-plus million team knowing this season will be a failure if they don’t win an iconic franchise’s first World Series title since 1988.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon explained this week in the middle of a grueling first-round, five-game series against the Nationals. “You can’t run away from any of this stuff. The question could have been about any team, not just the Dodgers.

“Pick the ’27 Yankees. Pick the ’64 Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, whatever, the We Are Family (Pirates). You just want to believe your guys can match up with anybody. And I want our guys to believe the same thing.”

The Cubs had credibility issues when Maddon made that declaration in Philadelphia during a 3-3 road trip against the last-place Reds and Phillies, part of the same overall pattern that led to a 43-45 first half and Milwaukee’s three-game sweep at Wrigley Field in the middle of September.

From that point, the Cubs buried the Brewers and Cardinals in the division race, going 15-4 to close the regular season and devastating a 97-win Washington team in the playoffs.

“That was brought up to me,” Maddon said, “and all I said was I was just agreeing with the comment. Somebody brought up the Dodgers. They could have brought up the ’27 Yankees. I was not pointing anything out.

“When that was all going on, there was a lot of nonbelievers. We have really, obviously, picked it up in the second half in general, and then I’m using Milwaukee as the benchmark. In 2015, I used the Giants in August as being that seminal moment that all of a sudden it seemed to get right. Since (then), our mental intensity has really been outstanding every game.

“I wasn’t talking about the Dodgers. Somebody else was.”

The Dodgers still have the main elements in place that held the Cubs scoreless for 21 straight innings during the 2016 NLCS — the great Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen imitating Mariano Rivera — but their roster isn’t quite as top-heavy anymore after making a trade-deadline splash with Yu Darvish and developing Cody Bellinger into a 39-homer, 97-RBI force and probably the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

While the Cubs felt like they blacked out during a crazy NLDS —  and the team’s West Coast charter flight got diverted to New Mexico on Friday morning — the Dodgers relaxed and set up their pitching after sweeping the Diamondbacks in three games.

“I can’t wait,” said shortstop Addison Russell, whose 2016 postseason could be divided into through (1-for-24) and after (12-for-40) Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. “We’re willing to take on each challenge. I know that we got another big challenge ahead of us against the Dodgers.”

Remember, the Dodgers had to play a one-run elimination game at Nationals Park on Oct. 13, 2016, using Jansen and Kershaw to nail down the final nine outs, the same urgency/desperation the Cubs showed Thursday night in using Jose Quintana and Wade Davis for the last three innings against Washington.

Will the 2017 Cubs run out of gas like the 2016 Dodgers? Can the 2017 Dodgers withstand the pressure and freak-out moments as well as the 2016 Cubs? Stay tuned.  

“They’ve been the best team in baseball since Day 1,” said Jon Lester, last year’s NLCS co-MVP with Javier Baez. “The roles are reversed. We were that team last year — and we moved on — and they’re that team this year.

“But we know going into L.A. that it’s going to be a hard series, regardless. They got a great staff. They got a great lineup, so we got to respect them. Hopefully, they respect us, and it’s a good series.”    

Joe Maddon will again be under the microscope with Cubs back in playoff mode

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon will again be under the microscope with Cubs back in playoff mode

WASHINGTON – “Manager of the Year,” one player sarcastically said to another in the hallway as they passed a group of reporters walking into Joe Maddon’s office for a postgame press conference.

The Cubs had just beaten the Milwaukee Brewers in an intense 10-inning game at Miller Park, where it already felt like the playoffs in late September, the defending World Series champs closing in on a second straight division title and a third consecutive playoff appearance, something this franchise had not done since Wrigley Field opened more than a century ago.

Minutes after that throwaway line, cranky pitcher John Lackey gave a “Ya think?” answer to a question about wanting to throw more innings. It’s not easy herding millionaires with huge egos and their own agendas. But that scene in the visiting clubhouse – while the Cubs were operating at their highest level all season – reinforced the idea that something had been a little off with this team.

So while Dusty Baker has more to lose — no contract for next season, no World Series ring as a manager —  Maddon’s decisions will be magnified in a best-of-five National League Division Series where the Washington Nationals might have more on-paper talent in every phase of the game.

It begins Friday night at Nationals Park, where the Cubs nearly self-destructed in late June, chatty backup catcher Miguel Montero talking his way off the team and the never-ending victory tour making a second White House stop within six months.

Do you think Kyle Hendricks will be allowed to pitch deeper into Game 1?

“I’m not Joe Maddon,” said Jon Lester, who didn’t get the clean situation everyone expected when he replaced Hendricks with two outs in the fifth inning of last year’s World Series Game 7. “I don’t make those decisions. As a pitcher, I’m sure he wants to throw nine every time, just like the rest of us do.

“You don’t even know if (Kyle’s) heart’s beating out there half the time. I’m sure he gets frustrated when he gets taken out of games, just like the rest of us do as well.

“I just hope he pitches well and we don’t have to worry about any decisions.”

The thing with Maddon is that his greatest strengths — deep trust in players to do the right thing, an expectation the clubhouse will police itself, a relentlessly upbeat attitude, the stubborn belief in his philosophy — can at times also look like his biggest weaknesses.

It can also be a matter of perception. The sloppy fundamentals and lack of urgency during a 43-45 first half left Theo Epstein’s front office considering the remote possibility of dealing Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and All-Star closer Wade Davis before the July 31 trade deadline and flipping those upcoming free agents for prospects.

That 49-25 surge after the All-Star break also reflected a manager who kept his cool and mostly contained the frustrations at a time when you wondered if this team would listen to anyone, anyway, because everyone kept telling the Cubs how great they were, how great they are and how great they will be in the future.

“Joe’s super-consistent and very positive and manages with the big picture in mind,” Epstein said. “Look at what we’ve done in the second halves under him.”

Since Maddon used the escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2014 season, the Cubs have gone 118-57 in August, September and early October, plus winning five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.

“He’s been the same guy since Day 1,” said Kris Bryant, who has won Rookie of the Year and MVP awards and a World Series ring and advanced to the playoffs three times during his first three seasons with Maddon/in the big leagues.

“He’s very hands-off. He trusts his players. He knows that we all want to win. He knows that we’re going to prepare for every game, so he feels like he doesn’t need to go out there and hoorah and tell us all this stuff to get us ready. He knows that we have a good group here.

“He’s been the perfect manager for a young team, that’s for sure.”

By his own admission, Maddon is not a rules guy or a rah-rah motivator. He doesn’t come with big-league playing experience or an expertise in pitching mechanics or the science of hitting. He also didn’t bring out the zoo animals or as many dress-up gimmicks this season.

“You can play that stuff out too much,” said Ben Zobrist, who made his big-league debut with Maddon’s 101-loss Tampa Bay team in 2006. “You can do a little bit too much. He probably pulled back a little bit (compared to) past years.

“Our team was so loose all year, anyways. There wasn’t really a moment in the season where we didn’t pick each other up or we were hanging our heads or guys weren’t wanting to work.

“A lot of these guys are just intrinsically motivated.”

The strategy questions followed Maddon after the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field last November and lingered into the winter meetings and spring training. Maddon didn’t publicly second-guess himself about how he used superstar closer Aroldis Chapman and doesn’t see the point in dissecting the job he’s done this year.

“It doesn’t matter, really,” Maddon said. “I’m pleased in the sense that what I’ve always believed I’ve carried here. And I haven’t backed down on my belief system regarding how to work with the baseball team, how to run a game, how to help promote it, develop young players. All that stuff, nothing has changed.

“It’s nice to see that your methods are validated. Because as you move it along, you really are secure and understanding what you believe is right on. There are times where you are just trying stuff, you don’t even know. But then you get to a certain point where you feel pretty strongly about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

“If anything, I’ll concede one thing: That these last three years overall have validated the teaching principles I’ve learned in this game and how to go about it. The people that I learned from are a really special group.”

The end scene for a baseball lifer will be the free-flowing Hall of Fame speech Maddon will someday give on a summer afternoon in Cooperstown, New York, name-dropping all his old coaches and buddies from places like Lafayette College and the Texas League, the back fields he once worked and the miles he drove as a scout, all the experiences that shaped him into an iconic manager. But the rest of this Cubs season is unwritten, and it will be fascinating to see if Maddon pushes the right buttons now.

The Streak ends as Cubs watch Wade Davis finally blow a save: ‘It’s definitely on me’

The Streak ends as Cubs watch Wade Davis finally blow a save: ‘It’s definitely on me’

MILWAUKEE – The efficient, emotionless way Wade Davis did his job helped the Cubs stay afloat during the disappointing first half of this season, a time when late-inning losses could have really damaged the clubhouse and the defending World Series champs might have collapsed.  

Standing at his locker, Davis had the same stone-faced expression on his bearded face after Saturday afternoon’s 4-3 walk-off loss, the third straight 10-inning game the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers have played at Miller Park. Because Davis had been 32-for-32 in save chances this year, the Cubs could appreciate all the heart-pounding action and how this compared to October.  

“We 100 percent won that game today, it seemed like,” Davis said in his monotone voice. “The offense and everything was incredible, coming back twice. It’s definitely on me.”

It was jarring to watch Travis Shaw drive a hanging curveball over the fence in left-center field and into the Milwaukee bullpen. Teammates waited for Shaw at home plate with Gatorade buckets after that game-winning two-run homer, showering him and tearing his jersey apart amid the mosh pit, the Brewers still clinging to their hopes in the National League wild-card race.

The perfect season already ended for Davis in the ninth inning, when Orlando Arcia hammered a misplaced 92-mph fastball that stayed just inside the left-field foul pole and landed in the second deck.

The crowd of 44,067 watched Davis blow his first save since Sept. 2, 2016, which also happened to be his first game back in the Kansas City Royals bullpen after spending more than a month on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his right elbow.

“There’s nothing to lament right there,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Another intensely good baseball game. And they got us at the end. But there’s no way, shape or form to point a finger at Wade.”

Davis wasn’t pointing a finger at Maddon and doing an Aroldis Chapman impression, but the All-Star closer did admit: “My arm was dragging a little bit.”

The Cubs had used Davis five times within the last eight days, including a back-to-back-to-back last weekend against the St. Louis Cardinals and then asking him to get five outs in Thursday night’s 10-inning comeback win over Milwaukee. Until Saturday’s comeback, the Brewers had been 0-54 when trailing after eight innings.  

“I just made a lot of bad pitches,” Davis said, who had converted his last 38 save chances and set a new franchise record to begin his Cubs career/set him up for a big contract this winter as a free agent.

Maddon, who will face another round of bullpen-management questions when the playoffs begin, had Hector Rondon warming up in the 10th inning, but the right-hander threw a scoreless inning on Friday night, his first appearance since Sept. 8 after getting treated for a sore elbow.

“If we did not score when we scored, I would have brought Rondon into the game,” Maddon said. “But once we scored, I put him back out there. It was a pretty easy equation.

“He’s your best guy. There’s no second-guessing whatsoever. He was fine to go back out there.”

What did The Streak mean to you?

“Not much,” Davis said. “I obviously wanted to win today’s game and put us in a better position than we were yesterday. So it kind of stinks, but, you know, move on from it.”

That summed up the entire mood inside the visiting clubhouse, the Cubs pointing to a dominant Kyle Hendricks start (one run in six innings), Justin Wilson auditioning for a trusted role out of the playoff bullpen (four outs) and a resourceful lineup that manufactured offense without hitting home runs.  

“It’s been a hell of a series so far,” Hendricks said.

The magic number to eliminate the Brewers from the division race remains four, while the Cardinals were at five heading into their Saturday night game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubs can’t wait to unleash Davis in October.

“There’s no difference between these three games and the games that are going to occur the next month,” Maddon said. “They were absolutely that intense.”