Jon Jay didn’t feel the World Series hangover. While the 2017 Cubs got pulled in so many different directions, Jay wasn’t living off last season or focusing on his personal brand or thinking there’s always next year for a young team with money and big names.
Sensing another moment that could become a distraction, Jay called a team meeting immediately after the Milwaukee Brewers swept the defending champs on Sept. 10. There were three weeks left in the regular season as the Cubs gathered in a Wrigley Field weight room after getting outscored 20-3 that weekend. The Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals had both pulled within two games of first place. What the Cubs did next would define their season.
“It was just a reminder of how much we had fought at that point to be in the position we were at,” Jay said. “Everything was OK. That was the message all year with the veteran guys: ‘Hey, we’re going to be fine.’ That’s something I just preached all year: ‘Hey, we’re good enough. We got enough talent. Just keep playing baseball.’ Sometimes, it’s unexplainable what happens in baseball.”
That last line won’t fit easily on yet another Joe Maddon T-shirt, but it sums up a team that staggered into the All-Star break with a 43-45 record, a zero run differential (399-399) and questions about whether the front office would be trade-deadline buyers and if the clubhouse would come together or completely collapse.
Jay would never take credit for this, because at the age of 32 and after eight seasons in the big leagues he understands how complicated this game can be. His face remained expressionless when a reporter approached his locker and asked him about the short meeting. He won’t be holding court with the national media before and after the playoff games that begin Friday night at Nationals Park in Washington.
But from that point, the Cubs won seven games in a row, nine of their next 10 and 13 of their last 16 before clinching the National League Central title and eliminating the Cardinals from the wild-card race. That run included a 9-2 burst against Milwaukee and St. Louis, the Cubs committing only two errors during that time while outscoring their division rivals 58-29.
The Cubs played with a focus and an urgency that had been lacking at times. Jay’s 15-pitch at-bat and leadoff single against Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff became a symbol for the grinding team that won 10-inning games on back-to-back nights at Miller Park. Ben Zobrist retweeted the MLB.com Gameday sequence from the official Cubs Twitter account and called it the “best at-bat all season by anyone anywhere.”
“Jon Jay, to me, the 2017 Cubbies don’t go without him,” Zobrist said. “He picked us up on the field and off the field in a lot of ways when we struggled. He wasn’t around last year to talk about last year, so he was so focused on this year. He’s like: ‘OK, well I want to win a championship with you guys now. You guys did it last year, but turn the page.’ He definitely helped us do that.”
This meeting won’t go down in history next to the Jason Heyward Rain Delay Speech, but it illuminates how fragile and puzzling this team could be in the aftermath of an epic celebration. Maddon can say his methods are validated now – and no manager had guided this franchise into the playoffs for three straight seasons in more than a century – but he doesn’t have that many buttons to push beyond his patience and positive nature.
“Joe goes hands off, even when he knows things aren’t going the way we expect,” said Zobrist, a Maddon ally from their years together with the Tampa Bay Rays. “He just expects (it from) the players: If you feel like something needs to be said, then bring everybody together and say it.
“When there was some moments where people felt something needed to be said, they called the team meetings. That’s what good teams do. They don’t talk behind each other’s backs. They say: ‘Let’s come together. Let’s talk about this. Let’s turn the page and figure it out.’
“Yeah, it had to happen a little bit more this year, probably because we all knew that we were underperforming.”
The players met near the end of an 0-for-6 West Coast trip (and didn’t bother with Maddon’s “Anchorman” costumes for the long flight back home to Chicago). The Cubs had to deal with the fallout from Miguel Montero’s classic rant in Washington in late June (when roughly half the group skipped a visit to Donald Trump’s White House). Maddon called a we’re-still-in-good-shape meeting before a July 6 game at Wrigley Field (and then watched the Brewers maul the Cubs in an 11-2 game).
“So the second half, how many meetings did we have? One,” Zobrist said. “That Milwaukee series was not good for us, so I think it was good just to say, ‘All right, so what? Forget it.’
“There were multiple times beyond those meetings that I think just kind of kept everybody together as a team. Team dinners, guys hanging out, going to somebody’s room at a hotel, things like that, which nobody knows about or nobody talks about.
“Those kinds of things are not technically team meetings. They’re not saying everybody’s got to be there. But it’s a way that we connect.”
Jay has been the exact glue guy the Cubs envisioned when they signed him to a one-year, $8 million contract in late November, hoping he could take over some of David Ross’s leadership responsibilities, mentor Albert Almora Jr., the young outfielder who also grew up in Miami, and change the lineup dynamics (.296 batting average, .374 on-base percentage) as a different kind of left-handed hitter.
Now Jay – a player drafted and developed under The Cardinal Way – sees the parallels to the 2011 St. Louis team that didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season and wound up winning the franchise’s 11th World Series title.
“Absolutely,” Jay said. “Just get in and get hot. It’s not how you get in. It’s just about getting in.”