Cubs

Joe Maddon promises Cubs will party hard once playoff spot is clinched

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Joe Maddon promises Cubs will party hard once playoff spot is clinched

Joe Maddon established the freewheeling atmosphere around this team during his first press conference at The Cubby Bear, a Wrigleyville bar opposite the iconic marquee. The shot-and-a-beer manager offered to buy the first round last November.

Almost 11 months later, the Cubs are on the verge of clinching the playoff spot Maddon talked about during his media blitz. A team that already leads the league in zoo animals had its magic number move to two even with Wednesday night’s 4-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field.

But it’s only a matter of time — a combination of Cubs’ wins and San Francisco Giants’ losses — even if Maddon said during his pregame media session that he didn’t know the magic number at that point.

Publicly, Maddon doesn’t want to give up the long-shot hopes of catching the St. Louis Cardinals, though the Cubs are seven games back in the National League Central with an elimination number of four.

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant proves he's even better than the hype]

And the Cubs still want to chase down the Pittsburgh Pirates for home-field advantage in the wild-card game. It will be another huge series this weekend at Wrigley Field, with the Pirates lining up Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett.

But that doesn’t mean the Cubs will act like they’ve been there before or downplay the celebration once they clinch the second wild-card spot.

“As big as it could possibly be,” Maddon said. “You celebrate achievement all the time. So I love the fact that we celebrate every night. It has this bonding effect among the group. And then when you go beyond that, celebrate just a little bit harder.”

The Cubs already blow it out after every win, chanting and dancing to loud music. There’s a fog machine and DJ lighting in the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs silenced by Zach Davies, can't complete sweep of Brewers]

“It could go longer,” Maddon said. “We have like constraints in a sense. We got to get home. We got a game the next day.”

“I don’t know how much bigger it can get,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “But I guess there’s always room for improvement in anything.”

With 89 wins and the third-best record in the majors, the Cubs aren’t going to change now.

“Listen, the word ‘party’ has taken on a negative connotation in our country these days,” Maddon said. “It’s really bumming me out. There’s nothing wrong with having a good party.

“So if you have an opportunity to have a good party, go out and have one. All right? It’s OK to have a good time.”

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."