Cubs

Joe Maddon may not be Manager of the Year — or a Game 7 hero — but Cubs still see a future Hall of Famer

Joe Maddon may not be Manager of the Year — or a Game 7 hero — but Cubs still see a future Hall of Famer

Dave Roberts deserved to be the National League’s Manager of the Year because the Los Angeles Dodgers exceeded preseason expectations, overcame a wave of injuries and made so many different clubhouse pieces fit together.

The Dodgers used 15 different starting pitchers while getting fewer than 150 innings out of Clayton Kershaw. Roberts worked with a sprawling front office, creatively manipulating the lineup and the bullpen while incorporating young talent like Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, guiding the Dodgers to 91 wins and a division title.

The Cubs woke up on Opening Day as Major League Baseball’s most talented team on paper. Except for Kyle Schwarber shredding his left knee in early April — which would heighten the World Series drama later — the Cubs stayed remarkably healthy. Winning 103 games looked more like a continuation of 2015, when Maddon won the Baseball Writers’ Association of America award.

When the BBWAA revealed the voting on Tuesday night, Maddon (70 points) finished a distant second behind a first-year manager (108 points) in a contest that has a lot to do with perception and external factors and closes before the playoffs even start. Roberts received 16 of the 30 first-place votes, with Washington Nationals manager/ex-Cub Dusty Baker placing third with 66 points.

It also says something about the fundamental nature of the job — particularly in the age of Twitter and Big Data — that Maddon could guide the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908 ... and still get criticized and second-guessed for how he handled that classic Game 7 victory over the Cleveland Indians.

“Listen, we won the World Series,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I know there’s a zero-percent chance we win 200 games over two years and win the World Series without Joe.

“That’s the nature of the postseason. The managers take on almost an oversized persona because the camera’s on them the entire game. Every move they make is going to be dissected.”

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Like pulling Cy Young Award contender Kyle Hendricks with two outs in the fifth inning at Progressive Field — to bring in Jon Lester with a runner on first base and intensify the focus on his yips. Or having superstar closer Aroldis Chapman throw 97 pitches in Games 5, 6 and 7 combined. Watching Javier Baez fail to execute an assigned squeeze bunt in the top of the ninth inning compelled Jason Heyward to call a players-only meeting in the weight room during a 17-minute rain delay.

“Listen, I’ll be the first person to admit,” Hoyer said, “when Chapman came in with a man on first and two outs in the eighth inning, nowhere in my psyche was the game going to be tied two batters later (on Rajai Davis’ homer). Chapman hadn’t given up a home run as a Cub. So I think, in a lot of ways, what happened was something that was totally anomalous to what had happened throughout the season.

“But Joe is a world-champion manager for the first time — and he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame someday.”

Maddon clearly deserves credit for helping create the environment where all these hyped prospects could become All Stars, deflecting attention away from his players with his money quotes and long media sessions and deflating some of the pressure around the team with his “Embrace The Target” mentality.

It’s also so much easier to write about an 8-7 World Series Game 7 in the press box — or make those decisions from your couch — than actually deal with the human beings in the dugout. On Wednesday night, a Cub will win the Cy Young Award for the second straight year, unless Washington’s Max Scherzer beats Hendricks and Lester in a three-man race that didn’t have a clear-cut frontrunner like Jake Arrieta in 2015. It would be a shocking upset on Thursday night if Kris Bryant doesn’t follow up his Rookie of the Year campaign with an MVP award.

Maddon had been a two-time Manager of the Year with the Tampa Bay Rays, a small-market franchise that couldn’t keep its young core intact or win bidding wars for elite free agents. Maddon’s managerial resume already includes six playoff appearances in 11 years, including seven seasons with at least 90 wins, and the Cubs still feel like this is just the beginning of their run. Those crazy 10 innings in Cleveland should be good material for a Cooperstown speech.

“It was an amazing game,” Hoyer said. “I’m sort of glad that’s how we won the game. I think it was an appropriate way to end a 108-year-drought. We sort of stared into the abyss for 45 minutes or so — and ended up coming out the other side.

“It’s a more appropriate way than having a nice, clean 6-3 win. But I think I probably have more gray hair now. I probably have ulcers. And it probably took some minutes off my life. But I do think it was probably more appropriate.”

Cubs know it's time to flip the script regarding road woes

Cubs know it's time to flip the script regarding road woes

As the Cubs got set to kick off the Crosstown series with the White Sox on the afternoon of June 18, GM Jed Hoyer emerged outside the third-base dugout and talked about a variety of topics regarding his team.

One such topic was the Cubs' ugly home-road splits and at the time, Hoyer said this about his team coming off a 2-5 road trip:

"It's been a source of frustration. I think we've had three subpar road trips. There's no other way to say it. It's not something I read too much into. This is a group that's had a lot of success on the road. They've won in hostile environments in the playoffs before, so it's not like they're intimidated by crowds or intimidated by travel. 

"But it's an issue with this particular group in 2019. we've played great here [at Wrigley Field]. We've played poorly on the road. If we want to reach our goals, then we're gonna have to play better on the road. All that said, we've had some really tough road series — starting out like that on the road was difficult. At Houston and at St. Louis was difficult and at Colorado and at LA — those were series that you're happy when that part of the schedule is done. 

"But there's no excuses — we have to play better on the road. I don't have any answers for it. I'd be lying to say that I really do, but I think it will change."

The issue is, it hasn't changed yet for the Cubs. 

That day was the start of a long homestand for the Cubs and the ensuing road trip — three games in Cincinnati, four in Pittsburgh and two on Chicago's South Side — didn't yield any better results for the team. They went 3-6 total, dropping their overall road record to 18-27 this season.

By comparison, the Cubs are a whopping 36-18 at "The Friendly Confines," including 7-2 over the past week-a-half.

They've enjoyed the benefit of home cooking for the last couple weeks, between the All-Star Break and a nine-game homestand to open the second half. But now they head back out on the road, with maybe their toughest task yet. 

The Cubs begin a three-game series in San Francisco Monday night against a Giants team that has been among the hottest in baseball over the last few weeks. Then there are stops in Milwaukee and St. Louis, against the two teams immediately behind the Cubs in the NL Central standings.

This will be a huge test for a Cubs team that hasn't won a series on the road since May 17-19 in Washington D.C.

"I don't feel anything different from the group," manager Joe Maddon said Sunday morning before his team's final home game of the month. "We've been through it before — it's not like it's an intimidation factor or an uncomfortable moment. I'm not getting that. We're just not playing as well. 

"I don't even know how much it's that the other teams have gotten better. I don't even know where this all comes together. But we're playing decently now. ...I want to believe that just playing better here coming out of the break that we have a better chance of starting out better on the road. We need to. To get where we want to be, we have to do that. On this coming trip, three really good foes and we gotta be on our best behavior."

Like Maddon said, they've done it before, including winning three of the four road games in the 2016 World Series, a wild Game 5 in D.C. in the 2017 NLDS and the list goes on and on.

During the previous four years under Maddon, the Cubs have posted a winning record on the road in each campaign:

2018 - 44-37
2017 - 44-37
2016 - 46-34
2015 - 48-33

In order to keep that streak going, the Cubs would have to go 23-13 on the road the rest of the way.

That's a tall order when there are still two trips each to St. Louis and Milwaukee on the schedule plus stops in Philadelphia, San Diego and a couple dates with the always-pesky Pirates in Pittsburgh.

"Obviously at home, we've won. We gotta start playing that same game on the road. It's as simple as that," Maddon said. "To get where we want to go, we have to become that road team that we've been in the past and there's no reason that we can't."

So what's been the biggest difference between the road Cubs and the home Cubs?

That would be the pitching.

On the road, the Cubs have a 4.97 ERA and allowing opponents to hit .267 with a .798 OPS. At home, those numbers drop significantly to a 3.36 ERA and .233 average and .684 OPS against.

Meanwhile, offensively, the Cubs are actually slightly more prolific on the road than they are at home.

Away from Wrigley, this lineup is scoring 5.27 runs per game while posting a .257 batting average and .798 OPS. At home, they're scoring 4.91 runs per game with a .254 batting average and .785 OPS.

In search of the culprit of the road pitching woes, the blame lies with some of the Cubs' top arms.

Kyle Hendricks has a 1.89 ERA at home and 5.44 mark on the road. Jon Lester sits at 2.95 at Wrigley and 5.09 outside of Chicago. Brandon Kintzler carries an 0.75 ERA at home, but that number jumps to 4.32 on the road. 

Only a few guys — Yu Darvish, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop — have better marks away from Wrigley than they do at home.

As the Cubs look to flip the script on the road, they'll send Alec Mills, Darvish and Lester to the mound in San Francisco against a Giants offense that ranks sixth in baseball in OPS (.833) in July.

"We came out of the break, we got a good rest and we're playing really good baseball right now on this homestand," Kyle Hendricks said. "So we're just trying to keep that momentum going on the road. Just not think about where we are and embrace it, keep playing the same baseball. It starts with us on the mound, making good pitches. Set the tone on the road, be aggressive the same way we've been doing here and hopefully turn that around."

Up until recently, Maddon didn't even realize his team had so many run prevention issues on the road.

"That's really strange for me," Maddon said. "I would not have guessed that. So apparently we need to be just a little tighter with the pitching side of things and keep what we're doing offensively. I didn't realize there was that much of disparity involved. I didn't break it down any deeper than that.

"...I know San Francisco has been on a nice run, but sounds like we need to pitch better on the road. That's what I got out of it."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Lee Smith Hall of Fame edition

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MLB NETWORK

Cubs Talk Podcast: Lee Smith Hall of Fame edition

Listen to Lee Smith's entire Hall of Fame induction speech in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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