Cubs

Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs

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Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs

On the other side of the visiting clubhouse, you could hear “Joy to the World” blasting from the manager’s office on Sunday afternoon at Miller Park.

The Cubs had just beaten the Milwaukee Brewers and won their 97th game, an astonishing number for a young team that had averaged almost 93 losses across the previous five seasons.

That Three Dog Night song summed up Joe Maddon and the intoxicating feeling around this franchise.

Especially in Wrigleyville, the manager gets too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when the team loses.

But the Cubs wouldn’t have the third-best record in baseball without Maddon pumping up their confidence, energizing the fan base, distracting the Chicago media and pushing all the right in-game buttons.

There’s no one the Cubs would rather have standing in the visiting dugout on Wednesday night at PNC Park, looking out at the Pittsburgh Pirates through those distinctive glasses in what should be a high-stress, low-scoring National League wild-card game.

“Joe is the perfect manager for this team and this situation,” said Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations. “It’s authentic. He brings everybody up around him, keeps it loose. It’s great for young players. They love being around him. There’s no doubt we’re not here today without him.”

[MORE CUBS: Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins]

The perfect storm started last October with Andrew Friedman leaving the Tampa Bay Rays to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, triggering an escape clause in Maddon’s contract.

Since taking over at Clark and Addison in October 2011, Epstein had inherited/fired Mike Quade, hired/fired Dale Sveum and chosen Rick Renteria as a bridge manager with player development in mind.

With Renteria in limbo — and already told he would be back in 2015 — Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer met Maddon and his wife, Jaye, at an RV park along Florida’s Gulf Coast. They hung out at “The Cousin Eddie” and had drinks together on Navarre Beach.

By Halloween, the team had issued a press release headlined: “Cubs Fire Manager Rick Renteria.”

But in giving Maddon a five-year, $25 million contract, the Cubs didn’t get another free agent past his prime. This is a manager at the absolute top of his game.

“He lets us be ourselves,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who last offseason made a point to visit Maddon at Ava, his Italian restaurant in Tampa. “He really doesn’t care what we do, as long as we’re ready to play — and play hard.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta will be unstoppable in October]

Maddon is a brand now. That comes with the instant respect he didn’t have walking into the Devil Rays after three-plus decades working in the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels organization, waiting for that shot.

“It’s somewhat easier to get my point across now,” Maddon said. “I didn’t have the same credibility, in a sense, (back then). There were a lot of tough conversations that first two years with guys that really weren’t very good major-league players and thought they were.

“Wow, that was like some really delusional stuff that you had to deal with behind closed doors. It was really bizarre, because I had come from a really good situation in Anaheim.”

Jonny Gomes, the veteran outfielder now going to the playoffs with the Kansas City Royals, remembered how much Maddon wanted to take down the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the same way the Cubs have thrived in a division with three teams that won at least 97 games.

Tampa Bay finished last in the American League East in 2006 and 2007 — losing 197 games combined — before a stunning run to the 2008 World Series.

“The biggest thing that Joe brought was belief,” Gomes said. “I remember at the time when he took over, there were actually talks of Tampa leaving the AL East (and) maybe us going to the Central. And I think player-wise and fan base-wise, we were like totally on board.

“I remember one of the first things Joe said was: ‘Hell, I don’t want to leave the AL East.’ This was powerhouse Red Sox-Yankees. (Joe says): ‘I want to win the East.’ I remember being like: ‘Um ... OK?’

“It just proved what can happen in between the lines, in the clubhouse, on the plane and on the bus when the captain of your ship not only sets goals like that but backs it and puts people in situations to succeed.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Addison Russell is ready for playoff spotlight]

Maddon is the 61-year-old fraternity brother from Lafayette College who loves The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen but can still relate to all the millennials in the clubhouse listening to rap music and staring at their iPhones.

Maddon is the blue-collar guy from Hazleton, Pa., who spends most of his time in Chicago on the Gold Coast, shopping and eating at high-end restaurants.

Maddon is the baseball lifer who doesn’t believe in being the first one to the stadium or taking batting practice or leading the league in eyewash.

“Joe’s been the perfect manager for this group,” Hoyer said. “He’s had exactly the right touch at the right moment. He knows when to step on the gas, when to give guys hugs, when to give guys rest. He’s been ideal.

“It is hard to imagine us having this kind of success with this young group without having Joe at the helm.”

Maddon is not the micromanager telling coaches how to do their jobs or the old-school guy going with his gut and ignoring The Geek Department.

Maddon is the perfect ringmaster for the Wrigley Field circus, bringing Warren the Pink Flamingo into the interview room/dungeon, part of a rotating cast of characters that included Simon the Magician and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin.

[MORE CUBS: Dan Haren will retire once Cubs finish playoff run]

“Maybe you’re surprised (when) you’re walking on the concourse and he’s rolling in a cheetah,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “But you’re not surprised at the level of how it begins with the players and how much they respect him.

“That’s his reputation. He relates to every single player on this team. He just has a special kind of charisma, and he keeps everyone loose but focused. And everyone plays confident. There’s no way to objectively measure it, but it’s just a huge part of this season.”

The Cubs should have finished with a 90-72 record, according to the Pythagorean model, and their run differential drops to plus-64 when you take away that 17-0 blowout victory over the Cleveland Indians on June 17 at Progressive Field.

The Cubs didn’t have a losing month or a losing streak that went longer than five games, winning 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings.

“I think I’m less important (in the playoffs),” Maddon said. “It’s all about the players. My intent in the postseason is I really try to stay out of the way as much as possible. Probably the only impact you should have is hopefully within the bullpen and getting some guys in there at the right time. But overall, it’s about players.”

But someone has to point the players in the right direction, handle the egos, deflate the pressure inside the clubhouse, synthesize all the analytical information, make real-time decisions on national television and deal with the media before and after every game.

For this team, this city and this moment, the Cubs couldn’t have found a better manager than Maddon.

Cubs prospect Adbert Alzolay placed on Triple-A injured list with biceps injury

Cubs prospect Adbert Alzolay placed on Triple-A injured list with biceps injury

Adbert Alzolay's return to the North Side will be temporarily delayed as he recovers from injury.

Friday, the Cubs announced that Alzolay is heading to the 7-day injured list at Triple-A with biceps inflammation. 

Alzolay exited his start with Triple-A Iowa on Wednesday after just 3 2/3 innings. While there is no such thing as good injury news, Alzolay seemingly has avoided a major injury. Iowa Cubs manager Marty Pevey described the ailment as "slight biceps soreness" to Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register. 

The Cubs will surely be extra cautious with Alzolay, who missed majority of the 2018 season due to a lat strain and the start of the 2019 season with a side injury. With his injury history and Cole Hamels still recovering from an oblique injury, the last thing that the Cubs want is to rush Alzolay back and risk losing him for any extended period of time in the second half. 

The Cubs had a chance to call up Alzolay earlier this week, opting instead to promote Alec Mills from Iowa to start Tuesday's game against the Reds. Mills threw six innings of three-run ball, shutting out the Reds after the first inning.

Alzolay has struggled since the Cubs optioned him to Iowa on July 2, failing to pitch five innings in each of his three starts while also struggling with his command. 

-July 6: 3 1/3 innings, 4 hits, 5 runs/5 earned runs, 3 walks, 6 strikeouts
-July 12: 4 2/3 innings, 5 hits, 3 runs/3 earned runs, 6 walks, 2 strikeouts
-July 17: 3 2/3 innings, 6 hits, 5 runs/5 earned runs, 5 walks, 6 strikeouts

Be that as it may, Alzolay showed plenty of promise in his short stint with the Cubs before the All-Star break. The 24-year-old made his MLB debut on June 20 against the Mets, allowing just one earned run in four innings in relief. He followed that up with 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball on June 25 against the Braves, his first MLB start. However, he lasted just 2 2/3 innings his next time out, allowing seven runs on 10 hits in a start against the Pirates.

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Left-handed pitching has been the Cubs' Kryptonite this year

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AP

Left-handed pitching has been the Cubs' Kryptonite this year

The Cubs have a left-handed problem.

No, not in the bullpen (though they could use another lefty there even with Kyle Ryan's emergence).

The Cubs' issue is that their Kryptonite this year has been left-handed pitching. Considering they were one of the better teams against southpaws a year ago, this has been an unsettling development for their hopes of getting the offense on track consistently.

That changed for one day, at least, with one big swing of the bat from Anthony Rizzo Friday — a two-out grand slam in the third inning off San Diego southpaw Eric Lauer in a sloppy game the Cubs won 6-5.

But in general, facing lefties has been a major issue for this lineup.

"We've been terrible. we have to be better," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have guys that are really good against lefties that haven't shown that yet. of course, Albert [Almora Jr.] and [Addison Russell] and [David] Bote — those are the three guys, if they get back to their normal methods against lefties, that's really gonna help us a lot.

"That's the one element — talking about the offensive side of things — I really think for us, we have to get better vs. the lefty."

Entering play Friday, the Cubs ranked 28th in Major League Baseball in runs scored off left-handed pitchers and 29th in batting average (.234). They rank 15th in OPS vs. southpaws this season, but that mark — .752 — is actually better than they posted last year (.730) when they hit .260 against lefties.

On the one hand, the Cubs have not faced left-handed pitchers much — only one other team (Detroit Tigers) has faced southpaws less often than the Cubs this season.

On the other hand, the Cubs are trending in the wrong way against lefties. 

Since June 1 (entering play Friday), here are the OPS of Cubs players with at least 10 plate appearances against southpaws:

Willson Contreras — 1.379
Kris Bryant — 1.376
Addison Russell — .821
Anthony Rizzo — .639
Javy Baez — .579
Albert Almora Jr. — .558
David Bote — .455
Kyle Schwarber — .389
Jason Heyward — .221

Yikes.

That's three guys who are above average offensively, and one of those guys — Contreras — is currently on the injured list. 

It's encouraging for the Cubs that Russell has started to show more signs of life against lefties given his slow start in that regard and his typical solid production against them. But the other two Cubs lefty mashers — Almora and Bote — are way down at the bottom of that list. 

All three players were in the lineup Friday — Almora leading off, Russell hitting fifth and Bote hitting seventh — and Almora kicked off the Cubs' scoring by reached on an infield hit with two outs a few batters before Rizzo's blast. But outside of that, the three Cubs combined to go 0-for-6 with 5 strikeouts against the left-handed Lauer.

Even with a positive result in Friday's game, the Cubs still need to figure it out more consistently against southpaws. If they have hopes of going deep into the playoffs, they're going to have to contend with a bunch of lefties along the way, especially with the Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu, Rich Hill, Julio Urias etc.).

Whether that means the Cubs need to add another hitter to combat LHP or not remains to be seen, but with the trade deadline less that two weeks away, we'll have our answer soon enough.