Cubs U: As Cardinals await, Maddon's bunch still learning how to win


Cubs U: As Cardinals await, Maddon's bunch still learning how to win

Sometimes it seems like Joe Maddon is holding a life seminar rather than meeting with the press, working through the psychology of it all.

The Cubs manager is a sort of mad scientist who likes to go against the grain, hitting the pitcher eighth and turning road trips into costume parties.

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Maddon's latest class at Cubs University is teaching young, inexperienced players how to win consistently and instilling a winning culture in a franchise nicknamed "The Lovable Losers.'

"[Learning how to win] is really important," Maddon said. "It's important to think that as the game gets deeper and it's close, that you're going to win it somehow. There's also the alternative side, where, as the game gets deeper and closer, you feel like you're going to lose it somehow.

"That's the culture you definitely don't want to create. I've been on teams where you just can feel that. They know that and then sure enough, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy in a negative way. You don't want that.

"Right now, the needle is pointing in the right direction."

Maddon said this all before his team dropped the final two games to the Milwaukee Brewers, who left the weekend series at Wrigley Field with the worst record in baseball, even after the back-to-back victories. The Brewers responded to the series win by firing manager Ron Roenicke Sunday evening.

But Maddon was still positive even after Sunday's loss, sounding almost chipper while sporting his personalized Blackhawks sweater.

It's that attitude that helped lure veteran catcher David Ross to Chicago's North Side.

"[A winning culture] starts at the top," veteran catcher David Ross said, crediting the Cubs front office with making moves that have improved the clubhouse dynamic. "Joe definitely is a huge influence. That's one of the reasons I came here is because it made a statement on how much they were wanting to win.

"Joe's doing a great job. He's been on a ton of winning teams, has a great track record and it's because, I believe, he's positive. When in doubt, find a positive outlook on something.

"It's easy to look at the negative, especially as a coach or manager. He doesn't do that. He knows how hard this game is. He's a very detailed person, which is nice. He's not anal in the sense of just nitpicking every small mistake. He sees the big picture."

[RELATED - Kris Bryant keeping his head up despite recent struggles]

Ross and Jon Lester won a championship in Boston in 2013 and they headline a group of veteran voices in the Cubs clubhouse that passes along messages from Maddon and the coaching staff.

That's key on a roster packed with young guys who are still trying to figure out their identity as players, let alone how to win on a consistent basis.

"I can't overstate how important the veterans have been to this whole thing as far as leading the charge in the clubhouse and on the bench during the game," Maddon said. "These guys have been spectacular.

"Our veterans are great at staying in touch with our kids and really encouraging them. I'm very fortunate as a manager to have that kind of help in the clubhouse.

"It's one thing for the staff to put [a message] out there. It's another for the veteran players to put it out there. That's when it really sticks."

Lester is a good example for Maddon to point to as the Cubs manager tries to instill the right habits in the young players.

After struggling through four starts to being the 2015 campaign, Lester finally showed why he earned that $155 megadeal with a dominant performance in a 1-0 win Friday.
Still, after the game, you couldn't tell he had just won. His message was still the same, like the chorus of that Jay Z song - "On to the next one."

[MORE - Maddon, Cubs trying to 'unearth' Soler with lineup switch]

Lester refuses to get complacent and continues to keep the same work ethic, win or lose. He's loving the youthful energy with the Cubs right now and the dance parties in the locker room after victories.

"It's fun. Especially for us older guys. I've never really been around anything like it," Lester said. "... It's hard to win a game in the big leagues. You should celebrate it. Regardless of how pretty or how ugly it is.

"You enjoy it and the thing I've really liked - especially from these young guys - is they're able to separate it. They're able to have their fun, celebrate their wins.

"Tomorrow is a new day. You show up the next day and you do it all over again. That's the beginning of a really good team when you're able to separate each individual day. It's a long season. You have to separate the losses with the wins, then show up the next day and try to do the same thing."

That's the type of process and mindset Maddon points to as examples of what sets winning teams apart.

"You win hard for 30 minutes, you lose hard for 30 minutes and move on," Maddon said. "I love the guys like that - [Lester] probably had a beer or two and thought about it. So he gets over the moment, he's thinking about the next team he's going to pitch against and how he's gotta be better.

"Twenty-four hours can make a huge difference in anybody's life and and in anybody's game. If anything, I want our guys to turn the page, get to the next game, good or bad. That's one thing I've learned - what a difference 24 hours can make. It's incredible."

One of the staples of Maddon's style is each game carrying the same amount of weight. Whether it's a spring training contest, a regular season game or a postseason series.

When players start to look at some games as "bigger" or more important than others, it lets pressure creep in.

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Still, the Cubs have a nice measuring stick in front of them this week - a four game series in St. Louis with a first-place Cardinals team that is rallying after losing ace Adam Wainwright for the season.

"This is a good test," Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel said. "We gotta win these games. To be the best, you gotta beat the best. These guys are playing hot and we're going into their territory now.

"We'll find out what we're made of in this series."

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

The NLCS rematch will have to wait another day.

Mother Nature and the power at Wrigley Field care not for your excitement about a "big series" between the Cubs and Dodgers.

Thunderstorms rolled over the North Side of Chicago, where the Dodgers ended the Cubs' postseason run 8 months ago. 

On top of that, the power at Wrigley Field was not cooperating with the lights down the right field line going out for hours during the rain delay. 

The lights came back on at one point before again going out again roughly a half hour before Monday night's game was officially called. After a delay stretching almost three hours, word finally filtered out just before 10 p.m. the game would be postponed a day.

The Cubs and Dodgers will make the game up as part of a day-night doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field with the first game starting at 12:05 p.m. and the second at the regularly scheduled time of 7:05 p.m. Tyler Chatwood will start the first game for the Cubs with Mike Montgomery slated to go Game 2.

As of 10 p.m. Monday night, the Cubs were unsure what caused the power issue at Wrigley Field but were working on fixing the problem ahead of Tuesday's scheduled doubleheader.

The evening started with the tarp being rolled onto the field by the Cubs grounds crew roughly an hour before scheduled first pitch with a forecast calling for a 100 percent chance of rain.

Only a light rain fell until a downpour began around 8:15 p.m.:

That lasted only about a half hour before the grounds crew came back out around 8:45 p.m. to partially remove the tarp and attempt to get the field ready to play.

The only issue at that point was the light and a sinister forecast.

"It takes 45 minutes to get the field ready to play," said Julian Green, Cubs director of communications. "So once you take that tarp off, you saw them putting the chalk lines down, getting ready.

"We wanted to be ready — even in the face of rain — if the lights came back on, we wanted to make sure we could play baseball, even if it was a limited window of opportunity."

As of 11 p.m., that second bout of rain had yet to materialize, but the lights issue also wasn't corrected and play on the field would've been impossible.

Fans lingered throughout the stadium for nearly three hours before an official conclusion came down. The Cubs kept the same announcement on the right field video board about the weather delay while the left field video board displayed the Brewers-Pirates and other MLB games.

This is the only trip to Chicago the Dodgers make throughout the 2018 season so the two teams and Major League Baseball did all they could to try to get a game in and avoid any issue where these two teams would have to play on a mutual off-day later in the year. 

The Cubs were in the midst of a stretch of 17 games in 17 days without a day off. They're still on that same schedule, though now with an unexpected day off Monday and a doubleheader Tuesday.

The Cubs are no stranger to postponements this season as wacky weather has continued to hamper this MLB season.

"Not only for the Chicago Cubs, but Chicago in general, this has been a really interesting spring and summer season," Green said. "We're taking our licks just like everybody else is.

"Our plan is to play baseball tomorrow and make sure we can accomodate fans as best as possible. So fans who have tickets to tonight's game will be able to use them for tomorrow."

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

Whatever Kris Bryant does from here, it's just frosting on the cake that is his legacy.

That's one way to look at the lasting impact of a guy like Bryant, who morphed from "The Chosen One" as the No. 2 overall pick. He's lived up to the hype from Day 1, has a Rookie of the Year and NL MVP Award in his trophy case and — most importantly of all — led the Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years.

A slump in May and June of 2018 won't tarnish that legacy.

But you can also forgive Cubs fans if they're growing a little antsy with their stud player. 

Just rest easy that he's growing a little antsy, too.

After chronicling his "temper tantrums" and actually admitting he gets so angry he is prone to breaking bats in frustration (still find that really hard to believe) last week, Bryant still isn't quite over his slump.

Maybe he's just simply trying to do too much right now.

"Kris is fine," Jon Lester said. "I mean, I think anytime you have a guy like that, he's got such high expectations not only of himself but the other people outside of the baseball world.

"I think he feels that — he feels pressure from his teammates, he feels pressure from himself and he wants to perform and he wants to do well every night. When he doesn't, it seems like he just keeps adding on. The rock on his back gets a little bigger every time."

As recently as May 22, Bryant was hitting .303 with a 1.007 OPS.

But since then — a span of 21 games — he's hitting just .241 with a .316 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage, good for a .627 OPS. More alarming than anything, he's struck out 28 times in 87 at-bats, taking a step back in the area he has made the most improvement in since breaking into the league in 2015.

The power has been an issue for even longer. Bryant just recently went a month without a homer before sending one into the bleachers Friday night at Busch Stadium.

Still, since May 15, he has only 8 extra-base hits (7 doubles and that 1 homer) in 27 games.

The struggle is real right now, but that hasn't stopped the Cubs from going 17-11 during Bryant's dip in power.

GM Jed Hoyer reiterated again that Bryant is the last guy the Cubs worry about in the big picture.

"The way he runs the bases, the way he plays defense, I feel like he's contributing to wins even when he might be struggling at the plate a little bit," Hoyer said Monday evening. "With guys like him, I always look at it and think to myself — that means a hot streak is right around the corner.

"I said that about Anthony [Rizzo] in April when he was struggling and he's been great since May 1. I think Kris will have the same kind of turnaraound. With him, it's just a matter of when he breaks out.

"Over the course of the season, every great player goes through one or two big slumps. We're in a strange sport where even the greatest players are not slump-proof. He'll get out of it and we'll all reap the benefits when he does."

Even with the struggles, Bryant ranks 23rd among position players in WAR (Fangraphs) with 2.3, pacing the Cubs in that category. That still puts him on pace for a roughly 6-WAR pace, which would be his lowest throughout his MLB career but is still very clearly elite.

In an effort to get him back to the "KB" we've seen so much over the last four years, Joe Maddon has twice resorted to bumping him to the top of the lineup, including Monday night's game against the Dodgers.

Maddon is hoping a move to the leadoff spot will reinstill in Bryant's head that he doesn't need to be a power hitter to help the team win.

For right now, it works. After all, Bryant is still tied for 9th in baseball in OBP (.389). 

"You really do start trying too hard," Maddon said. "You try to force things as opposed to letting them come to you. Especially a power guy that's not hit home runs in a bit. My take on power guys is that it normally is cyclical. They'll get it for a while, then they'll get away with it, then it comes back."

Like Hoyer, Maddon talked up Bryant's abilities as a "winning player" in every other area of the game even when he's not going yard. That includes his daily hustle and effort.

"When a guy like him goes through this moment, I want him to focus on that — not homers," Maddon said. "He probably hears that way too much about the power situation and I'm really not interested in that. 

"Put him back in the leadoff spot for the reasons I just said — he can help win a game in so many different ways and I want him to just focus on that. ... He needs our support; he's gonna get it. I just put him in that top spot to readjust how he's thinking and that's all."