Cubs

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."

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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."

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense prolific against Pirates

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USA TODAY

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense prolific against Pirates

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.