Cubs

Joe Maddon manages like Cubs are already in playoffs

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Joe Maddon manages like Cubs are already in playoffs

Joe Maddon managed like the Cubs are already in the playoffs.

After so many years of talking about the future, the Cubs are in the moment now, a reflection of their Zen manager, a rookie-heavy lineup and a pitching staff that’s being conditioned for October.

Maddon followed his killer instinct in Thursday night’s 5-4 win over the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, yanking Jason Hammel with no outs in the fifth inning and using five different relievers to beat the defending World Series champs.

With that sense of urgency, the Cubs (59-48) moved into the second wild-card position, a half-game ahead of the Giants (59-49), passing the first test in what will be a difficult four-game series. 

“We did not want to let it slip away tonight,” Maddon said.

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Maddon had already watched the Giants chip away at a 5-0 deficit with Brandon Belt’s two-run homer in the fourth inning. Maddon had seen enough after Hammel walked back-to-back Giants on nine pitches and signaled for Justin Grimm.

“I did not want to let them back into that game right there,” Maddon said. “It’s been my experience when you get (to) the playoffs, there’s some really, really great work done in the fifth, sixth and seventh inning by relievers that never get any credit for it. 

“As we get into this particular juncture of the season, you don’t want to just give anything away, especially when you have a lead like that.”

The Giants built their dynasty on pitching, defense and clutch hitting, winning three World Series titles and 34 playoff games since 2010. Their underrated farm system keeps producing talent while manager Bruce Bochy adds to his Hall of Fame resume.

[MORE: Kris Bryant trying to see big picture in the middle of mental grind]

“They’re a very experienced team,” Maddon said. “You could feel or sense that they were feeling pretty good about where they were at. I thought we had to do something differently, just based on (how) I thought ‘Hammer’ had great velocity and stuff, but the command was not there tonight.”

Hammel looked visibly frustrated while walking off the mound after only 76 pitches and requested to speak with Maddon after the game.

Did you understand the decision?

“Yes and no,” Hammel said. “I felt like I had earned the right to get out of that situation. It is what it is. He leveled with me and we’re on the same page.  

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“I understand the magnitude of the situation and I don’t want to make a big deal of it. Obviously, as a competitor, I want to be out there cleaning up my own mess.”

Hammel is a good clubhouse guy who played on Maddon’s 2008 Tampa Bay Rays team that reached the World Series. Hammel is enjoying another good season on the North Side (6-5, 3.17 ERA, 120 strikeouts in 122 innings) and said he felt great physically after dealing with a hamstring issue last month.  

“It’s not a lack of confidence by any means,” Maddon said. “It’s just the moment. Every game has its own unique characteristics. If we didn’t have that rested of a bullpen, I probably would have chosen to do something differently.”

Maddon didn’t want to waste the 5-0 lead the Cubs built up with Jorge Soler’s two-out, two-run, line-drive single into left field in the first inning and Kyle Schwarber’s first career home run at Wrigley Field, a three-run bomb in the second.

The bullpen took it from there, with Grimm, Jason Motte, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon (17th save) combining to allow zero hits in four scoreless innings. (Tommy Hunter – the hard-throwing reliever the Cubs acquired from the Baltimore Orioles at the trade deadline – gave up a two-run homer to Brandon Crawford in the sixth inning.)   

“The bottom line is we won the ballgame,” Hammel said.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

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USA TODAY

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.