Cubs

Already dealing with enough Cubs problems, Joe Maddon insists no ‘ill will’ toward Rays

Already dealing with enough Cubs problems, Joe Maddon insists no ‘ill will’ toward Rays

The lead sentence in a Tampa Bay Times story previewing this Cubs-Rays series mentioned how the Joe Maddon photos have been erased from Tropicana Field.

Radiating positivity to his players, distracting the media with zoo animals and dress-up trips and translating for a data-heavy front office, the force of Maddon’s personality helped turn the Rays into a small-market miracle. 

Winning at least 90 games five times – as well as the 2008 American League pennant – apparently wasn’t enough to preserve the images of a star manager. 

“Oh, really?” Maddon said before Tuesday’s 6-5 loss at Wrigley Field. “I don’t blame them, seriously. No, I don’t think it’s awkward at all. There’s new people in place. Then you have to put the new folks – whoever they are at that time – (up) on the walls. Now I’m not ready for that black-and-white photo – that iconic photo – that’s placed in a hallway next to a trophy. I don’t think I’m that guy.

“Otherwise, I have no ill will whatsoever. Personally, I prefer when my picture’s not displayed somewhere, especially in post offices. 

“You cannot walk away from that one. So, no, it doesn’t bother me in the least.”   

Nothing seems to bother Maddon. While that upbeat attitude and breezy confidence clicked with the 2015 Cubs during a transitional year that led to 97 wins and the National League Championship Series, it doesn’t seem to be working that well with the defending champs. Strengths – stubborn beliefs in players and decisions and a laissez-faire attitude toward the clubhouse – can slowly turn into potential weaknesses.  

Where Maddon just about reached his shelf life with the Rays after nine seasons, he listened to rounds and rounds of Game 7 strategy questions and second-guessing, months and months after the Cubs won their first World Series title in 108 years.  

Two-and-a-half seasons into a contract that will pay him in the neighborhood of $28 million, team president Theo Epstein implicitly criticized Maddon while explaining the decision to DFA veteran catcher Miguel Montero last week, saying things like: “Wins don’t just happen because you’re talented and you show up.” 

[MORE CUBS: Kyle Schwarber Watch: Cubs getting close to making a move]

Where Epstein ominously called out the lack of “edge” in the 2017 Cubs – “You can be kind of striving for an identity or a chemistry all year and not find it” – Maddon points to injuries and how the team has hung around .500, stayed in the division race and gotten in position to make a post-Fourth of July push.   

“I’m one of those guys that believe you create chemistry and then it turns into wins,” Maddon said. “Other people believe you have to have wins to turn into chemistry. I always believed that you mock what you don’t understand. 

“Being with the Rays for several years, the winning wasn’t there, so you had to create something other than that in order to have the winning be the residue. I’m a big believer in that. 

“How do you do it? I’ve talked about it a zillion times. It’s about relationship-building and trust first. And then you got to have the guys in the room being aligned with your belief system organizationally. And then you have to have people that are kind of fearless within the clubhouse, guys that are purely Stage 5 players that are trying to win and not just there to try to survive. 

“All those things matter. (But) you can intentionally attempt to create that kind of momentum in your clubhouse by how you react, manager’s office, coaches’ room, et cetera.” 

The Rays reacted by pushing Major League Baseball to launch a tampering investigation after Maddon used the escape clause in his contract that triggered when Andrew Friedman left to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2014 season.

Except for bench coach Dave Martinez, none of Maddon’s coaches followed him to Chicago. Neither did David Price, Tampa Bay’s homegrown Cy Young Award winner, who followed the money as a free agent and took $217 million guaranteed from the Boston Red Sox.

The Rays did what all teams looking for a correction do, hiring a young, low-key manager with the opposite personality (though it’s not like there are many Maddon clones out there). Kevin Cash oversaw an 80-82 campaign in 2015, last year’s 94-loss, last-place season and a 44-41 run before the All-Star break.  

“I’m just curious to see where they’re at right now,” Maddon said. “More than anything, it’s just about saying hi to people. I swear that’s probably my most pressing need right now – just to make sure I connect with these guys.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

It was a tough day for the North Siders.

The Cubs got obliterated by the Cardinals as Matt Carpenter had a three-homer, two-double day. Ben Finfer, Seth Gruen and Maggie Hendricks join David Kaplan on the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast to talk about the blowout.

Was Jon Lester due for this kind of terrible outing? And do the Cubs have enough to swing a big trade before the deadline?

Plus, the panel discusses Matt Nagy’s first training camp practice in the rain and Roquan Smith’s absence in Bourbonnais.

You can listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester had easily his worst outing of the year, allowing the Cardinals to score eight runs on seven hits, the veteran All-Star only managed three innings before Joe Maddon turned to his bullpen. 

The Cardinals would take game two of the series by the score of 18 to 5, and while none of the Cubs pitchers could silence the Cardinal bats, Lester didn't shy away from his poor outing. 

"You know, I don't want to chalk this up as bad days happen," said Lester. "I think mechanically this has kinda been coming." 

Lester knew he was struggling to hit his spots, and while his ERA was a sparkling 2.58 coming into this start, his peripheral stats had him pegged as a potential regression candidate in the second half of the season.

His 4.35 FIP and 3.30 walks per nine innings show a pitcher who is relying heavily on his defense to get outs, which isn't surprising for a 33-year-old veteran but the walks are a concern. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was aware Lester had been working on his mechanics, but even he was surprised that Lester's start went downhill so quickly. 

"I thought he had good stuff to start the game, hitting [92-93 mph] and I'm thinking this might be a good day," said Maddon. "But you could just see from the beginning he was off just a little bit." 

Over Lester's last four starts his ERA has been an uncharacteristic 4.57, issuing 10 walks over those four starts, and only making it past the 6th inning once. At this point of Lester's career, he knows the best way for him to get outs isn't through strikeouts but by inducing soft contact and avoiding walks. 

And while both his hard contact rate and walks have increased this season, Lester's experience and high baseball I.Q. has allowed him to navigate his way through sticky situations. 

"I've been getting outs," Lester said candidly. "I just feel like when I've had that strikeout or I have a guy set up for that pitch I haven't been able to execute it." 

And while this outing was one to forget, it's at least a positive sign that Lester is aware of his issues on the mound. The veteran knows how to get outs and he knows what he needs to do to be successful in the latter part of his career. He just needs to get back to executing those pitches. 

Just don't expect Lester to dive head first into the analytics on how to fix his issues, he'll stick to hard work and baseball common sense. 

"I'm not too concerned with the analytic B.S., I'm worried about my mechanical fix for my next start."