Cubs playing ‘scared?’ Joe Maddon dismisses Washington’s whining about the Bryce Harper treatment

Cubs playing ‘scared?’ Joe Maddon dismisses Washington’s whining about the Bryce Harper treatment

Joe Maddon laughed off the way the Washington Nationals responded to the Bryce Harper treatment, from pitcher Tanner Roark saying the Cubs played “scared baseball” to manager Dusty Baker comparing those six walks to “Hack-a-Shaq.”   

“I love it,” Maddon said before rain postponed Monday’s game against the San Diego Padres, setting up a day-night doubleheader on Wednesday at Wrigley Field. “It’s really funny. There’s nothing I can say about that. The best way I can put it: I did not do anything to them.”

The Cubs manager loves playing mind games, sending messages through the media and pushing opponents’ buttons. But this sounded more like an indirect criticism, Maddon subtly shifting blame to the lineup Baker constructed for Sunday’s 13-inning game, which saw Ryan Zimmerman, Washington’s cleanup hitter, leave 14 men on base as the Cubs pieced together a 4-3 victory.

“There’s nothing to really react to,” Maddon said. “Of course, if you’re a Cub fan, you love it. If you’re not, you don’t necessarily. It was just a strategy of the game based on how they built their group. That’s all it came down to. 

“There’s nothing that I did. We had to react to the moment. We try to pick our best spots based on our abilities versus theirs. That’s how it played out. It happens every day. It just happened more often in yesterday’s game.”

The Cubs walked Harper 13 times during their four-game sweep of the Nationals, a playoff-caliber team they could face again in October. That’s the most walks a player has accumulated during a four-game series since 1913, according to STATS, which only has research dating back to that year.    

“You try to manage the game accordingly,” catcher David Ross said. “I know a lot’s been made of it. That wasn’t our plan walking in: ‘Don’t let this guy beat us.’ They have a really good, deep lineup. And the lineup shook out to where they had guys on base in key situations, in game-winning situations. 

“(But) we’re not going to let him beat us late. And finding the right matchup is what Joe’s looking for.”

Harper set a modern major-league record (since 1900) on Sunday for the most plate appearances without an at-bat in a single game (six walks and a hit by pitch), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. STATS also reported that the National League’s reigning MVP is the first hitter in at least 40 years to receive two intentional walks in extra innings with first base and second base occupied each time. 

“Jake (Arrieta) wasn’t trying to walk him,” Ross said. “He just didn’t have his command that he normally has. It’s not a matter of: ‘We’re not going to pitch to this guy.’ We’re going to set ourselves up to manage the game accordingly for us to win the game. 

“That’s all it is. He’s a great player and very talented. At the end of the day, you got to pitch around the guys that may beat you when the game is on the line. The goal is to win the game, however we have to do that.” 

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.