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Embrace the Target: Joe Maddon wants Cubs to run into the fire

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Embrace the Target: Joe Maddon wants Cubs to run into the fire

MESA, Ariz. - Forget "Respect 90" or "Do simple better."

"Embrace the target" is the axiom for the 2016 Chicago Cubs.

Joe Maddon doesn't want the Cubs to ignore or deny all the talk of this team entering the 2016 season as the World Series favorites. 

He wants the opposite, actually.

"I'm really a big believer of running towards the fire as opposed to away from it," Maddon said Friday as Cubs pitchers and catchers officially reported. "I really want our guys to get comfortable with the concept of everybody speaking so glowingly of us and embracing the target.

"The target's gotten bigger. We have to embrace the target and while you're doing that, understand what that means. That's what I'm going to do tomorrow with the guys and when the whole group gets in - apply a definition with that that they can wrap their minds around."

[MORE CUBS: Cubs will open spring training with World Series-or-bust mindset]

Maddon talks all the time about how baseball legends — whether it be former coaches or players — helped mold his coaching strategy, but "Embrace the Target" didn't come from anybody in real life.

Instead the inspiration came from Jack Ryan - the fictional character created by author Tom Clancy. 

In "Clear and Present Danger," Ryan (played by Harrison Ford) convinces the president to "embrace the target" instead of running away from a possible scandal.

Maddon doesn't want the Cubs to pretend like their goal is not to win the World Series or top last year's result, when they were swept out of the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets.

After all, this is the same guy that took over an 89-loss Cubs team and talked realistically about playoffs at The Cubby Bear during his introductory press conference in November 2014.

"I don't want us to become outcome-biased or outcome-based," Maddon said. "Yes, talk about playoffs. Yes, talk about winning the division. Yes, talk about playing the last game of the season and winning it. But you don't want to just get caught up in that thought.

"And 'Embrace the Target' - what does that mean? You talk about expectations and the word 'pressure' that are attached to it, which I believe are really positive words. So you take those concepts and those thoughts and what does that lead to?

"To me, that leads to really focusing on the day, focusing on the process of the day. And the process needs to be our anchor.

"... There's nothing to be upset about. People are saying really nice things about us. That's good. But at the end of the day, we have to take care of our own business and that is about utilizing the processes and the anchor on a daily basis."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Maddon spends a major part of his day focused on getting his players right mentally, easing all that internal — and external — pressure. 

That's where you see all those gimmicks, like zoo animals at Wrigley Field, a magician in the clubhouse, a super hero-themed road trip.

What does "The Mad Scientist" have in store to keep the Cubs loose in 2016?

"That's the real pressure," Maddon joked. "The other stuff is fabricated, but that's real pressure right there."

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here: