The Cubs can feel the creative tension when Joe Maddon manages like it’s already October, following his killer instinct and not worrying about the egos or individual agendas.
“Of course,” Maddon said. “Every good team I’ve ever been around, you’re going to have that. You can’t keep everybody happy every moment of every day. And that’s OK.”
The Cubs woke up on Thursday with the fourth-best record in the majors. Maddon’s impact – on a team that Baseball Prospectus gave an 87.4 percent chance of making the playoffs – is hard to measure but impossible to ignore.
Maddon pulling Jason Hammel after only 65 pitches on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field became the latest flashpoint. Maddon didn’t feel the need to meet with Hammel after a 3-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that was cemented by Miguel Montero’s walk-off homer in the 10th inning.
“You just have to do what you think is right,” Maddon said. “And then you move on. And then, eventually, everybody probably comes to terms with the decision.
“That’s just the way it is. That’s how it plays sometimes. Again, I do think it’s good for the group – a little bit of edge.”
It’s not just Hammel getting the quick hook and the mad-scientist manager creating matchups out of the bullpen.
It’s benching Starlin Castro – a three-time All-Star shortstop – in the middle of a pennant race. It’s bumping Travis Wood – an All-Star in 2013 – from the rotation and turning the lefty into an important piece of the bullpen puzzle.
It’s trying to keep Montero happy when he’s been part of two different three-catcher rotations. It’s refusing to name a closer and having seven different relievers notch saves this season.
“It’s part of the job,” Maddon said. “You have to do what you think is right on a nightly basis. You can’t worry about hurting somebody’s feelings a little bit.”
It’s easier to make difficult decisions when you have the security of a five-year, $25 million contract and the instant credibility that comes from a wildly successful run with the Tampa Bay Rays (five 90-win seasons between 2008 and 2013).
Hammel pitched for the 2008 Rays team that shocked the baseball world and made it to the World Series, so he certainly understands Maddon’s unconventional style.
Maddon didn’t hesitate during last week’s huge series against the San Francisco Giants, yanking Hammel after 76 pitches in the fifth inning of the first game of what turned out to be a four-game sweep of the defending World Series champs.
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On some level, Hammel (6-5, 3.10 ERA) might still be feeling the effects from the hamstring issues he experienced last month. Or it’s Maddon trying to create a smoke screen and find a positive spin.
“Earlier in the season, man, I would have left him out there for nine innings,” Maddon said. “He just hasn’t been as sharp with his command lately. But he will be. Coming off the injury has probably had a little bit of an impact on all of that overall. Physically, his stuff’s really good. He’s just not as sharp as he had been.
“The other component that I think is really interesting is that he should be really fresh coming down the stretch (in terms of) the number of innings pitched, the number of pitches thrown. And that’s why I can see him really turning it on relatively soon.”
Maddon is an expert communicator at a time when managerial power has been diminished across the game, players are essentially individual corporations and social media amplifies everything.
“I think you’re in an ‘era of sensitivity,’ regardless of the era,” Maddon said. “If I had done that to a pitcher in 1975, he’d still be upset.”
That guy might have punched you, a reporter said during Maddon media session.
“Yeah, it might have been more physical,” Maddon said. “You got a prideful person out there playing. And, again, based on pitch count, it would indicate that you should be able to stay in the game. And I get that. But I was not concerned about pitch count. I was worried about winning the game.”