Cubs

Joe Maddon’s message to Cubs before playoff pressure turns up

Joe Maddon’s message to Cubs before playoff pressure turns up

Joe Maddon doesn’t believe in meetings or rah-rah speeches or dress codes. The Cubs manager doesn’t want his players showing up to the ballpark early or taking extra batting practice, refusing to pigeonhole them into one position or follow baseball’s unwritten rules.

If players became frustrated with the spring-training feel at the end of the regular season, then Maddon also sounded annoyed at the passive-aggressive comments to reporters. If Maddon sometimes seems to make it about himself, then there’s also no denying his hands-off, big-picture, media-friendly style has been a spectacular success for a World Series-or-bust franchise. 

The cold water sprayed all over Maddon’s white hair, Great American Ball Park’s visiting clubhouse and the manager’s office after Sunday’s 7-4 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds marked a Game 162 release and a celebration of his 200th win in a Cubs uniform.

 “Just look around the clubhouse,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “(With) the character of the people and the players that we have – if we hold each other accountable – that’s the kind of regular seasons that we can have as a unit if we stay healthy and we perform to our ability. 

“Yeah, 200 wins in two seasons is no easy feat. But after we win a ring, we’d like to make it three seasons with 100.”   

“Try Not To Suck-tober” is here, so when the players gather before Tuesday afternoon’s simulated game at Wrigley Field, Maddon will give a rare State of the Cubs address, something simple and to the point, an updated postseason version of what he told them in spring training and around the All-Star break.    

“Most of the guys have been there (before),” Maddon said. “I don’t want to give them any stark advice regarding how they should deal with any of this stuff. It’s not going to be a long meeting. It’s primarily going to be about: In playoff baseball, things are going to go wrong. And how do you deal with (it) when things go wrong?

“You have to be able to maintain your focus. When things are going well, it’s easy. We all can do that. I just want to remind them to be able to maintain our focus, maintain our methods, even if something goes awry.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon wants his team to play the same game all the time. In theory, it shouldn’t matter if it’s April and the Arizona Diamondbacks are filling Chase Field with noise pollution, or an August weekend against the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 40,000 in Wrigleyville, or the October spotlight that can be blinding. 

So before Friday’s Game 1 against the winner of the National League wild-card game – either the New York Mets or San Francisco Giants – batting practice will be optional.

“Nothing should change,” Maddon said. “We’ll have our workout Tuesday (and) get some pitchers involved. Wednesday and Thursday, we will do different things, just to brush up. And then Friday it will be normal pregame. 

“If you don’t want it on the field and want to hit in the cage, please do. If you want to go hit on the field, please do. I don’t want anything to change. I want minimal or no changes whatsoever.”

Theo Epstein’s front office may have handed Maddon the keys to a Ferrari, but as Lou Piniella once said: This is not some push-button operation.

Even with multiple candidates for MVP (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo) and the Cy Young Award (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks) and a range of personalities that goes from a 22-year-old All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell) to accomplished veterans in their mid-to-late 30s with World Series rings (Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, David Ross) to the role players (Javier Baez, Matt Szczur, Travis Wood) who have thrived with Maddon’s keep-everyone-involved philosophy.

“Joe has that great sixth sense when it comes to people,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “He knows when to be where he needs to be, and the tone he needs to set for us. We’ve done a good job of being ourselves and policing ourselves on things and fighting through the ups and downs of the season.”

So the Cubs will rely on the daily routines, natural talent, emotional intelligence and scouting reports that got them to this point – and not try to reinvent the wheel just because the fans and the TV networks will be so focused on 1908.

“I want them to go out and play with a free and clear mind,” Maddon said. “There’s no information right now that’s really that above and beyond pertinent. You might grab a nugget or two. You might. Might. I’m all about the nugget. But I don’t want them carrying anything differently than when we’ve been seeing them (while) winning (103) games this year. I don’t want them to be any different.

“This is what we want to do. But don’t go nuts and try to do anything differently right now.”

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi to talk all things Chicago baseball as the Cubs take on the Braves and the White Sox look to get a win in Boston.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: