Cubs

Joe Maddon knows Cubs have nowhere to hide: ‘We are the target’

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Joe Maddon knows Cubs have nowhere to hide: ‘We are the target’

HAZLETON, Pa. – Not even Joe Maddon can talk his way around this. Not when the Cubs just dropped $272 million on Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. For a team that smashed all expectations by winning 97 games last season, there will now be nowhere to hide.

“Of course, we are the target,” Maddon said. “Of course, you are, so why deny that you are? You’re the target, OK? Embrace it. Seriously, embrace the target. And process it properly and move on. But to deny it? To say that’s not true? It is true.

“But that shouldn’t really alter the way we think. It shouldn’t alter our preparation. It shouldn’t alter anything except, I think, once you admit to it, then you kind of disarm it a bit. If you want to constantly push it back and say it’s not true, then you give it more power.”

Of course, this is exactly what Maddon signed up for when he scored a five-year, $25 million contract, a deal that immediately gave the franchise a new sense of swagger.

To be on the other side of the David vs. Goliath story after nine seasons managing the Tampa Bay Rays. To work at Wrigley Field and take advantage of everything that Chicago has to offer. To use the louder megaphone and bigger platform for his Hazleton Integration Project, the nonprofit organization staging “Thanksmas” this week in his old working-class neighborhood in Pennsylvania.

[MORE CUBS: Theo Epstein feels like Cubs are selling themselves now]

The national media already crowned the Cubs winners of the winter meetings by adding a big-game pitcher Maddon has compared to John Wayne (Lackey) and a Swiss Army knife that can hit anywhere in the lineup and play all over the field (Zobrist).

Now here comes the online headline from USA Today’s coverage of Tuesday’s press conference at Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue: “Jason Heyward gives Cubs the next great dynasty.”

“People are really going to be looking at us now,” Maddon said. “Of course, people are going to be predicting all these grandiose things for us. And that’s great, cool, because that probably means we are pretty good. But then how do you go about achieving those (things)? That’s why you can’t get caught up in this outcome society. You have to just really focus on today.”

Maddon exhaled while making his next point, which is pretty much the same thing he’s been saying since his “Hazleton Way” shot-and-a-beer press conference at The Cubby Bear on Nov. 3, 2014.

“And then when you do that,” Maddon said, “that pressure lightens up. Because all you got to do is win Monday. And then all you got to do is win Tuesday. And then you got to win on Wednesday. As opposed to trying to win 2016.

“I really believe a combination of me, the coaches, (sports psychologist) Ken Ravizza – all the people we have at our disposal – will be able to get that message out there.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward]

“Believe me, man, I’m going to pound that home again. Because if we can really adopt that attitude – which I know we can – that’s our best way to really win eight more games next year.”

The last time the Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series, Sports Illustrated responded by putting Kerry Wood on the cover of its 2004 baseball preview: “Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series.” That team won 89 games but finished in third place and missed the playoffs.

The last time the Cubs won 97 games, the team was still up for sale, the window to contend started to close and Milton Bradley poisoned the clubhouse during a miserable follow-up season in 2009.

The Cubs will need good health, good fortune and good chemistry in a division where the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates won’t be conceding anything. At a time when the New York Mets will be defending their pennant, the Washington Nationals are reloading and the NL West has the Arizona Diamondbacks jumping into the arms race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

[MORE CUBS: Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals]

Jake Arrieta threw almost 250 innings – including three draining playoff starts – during his Cy Young Award campaign. Jon Lester will be 32 next season, or five years younger than Lackey.

That’s why Maddon appreciates team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer preparing for worst-case scenarios in the rotation with Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood.

Whether or not Addison Russell can stay healthy and play shortstop for seven months, the front office is also giving Maddon two potential super-utility guys in Zobrist and Javier Baez.

The message to young, middle-of-the-order stars like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber should be: Don’t get too comfortable.

Heyward certainly comes across as someone who gets it, but he will have to deal with the pressure of signing the biggest contract in franchise history (eight years, $184 million) and the transition from right to center at Wrigley Field.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Forget “Do Simple Better.” It sounds like Maddon now has the perfect slogan for his next T-shirt idea: “Embrace The Target.”

“Regardless of how good we are on paper, theory and reality are two different things,” Maddon said. “We’re going to go through bad stretches next year, regardless of these beautiful names. We’re still going to go through problems. How do we react to them? And how do we keep those windows of failure to a minimum?

“Because it’s going to happen. It happens to everybody every year. So how do you process that? How do you get to the next moment that makes it better?”

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.