Cubs

Joe Maddon's playoff vision for Cubs comes to life at Wrigley

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Joe Maddon's playoff vision for Cubs comes to life at Wrigley

Joe Maddon rode by The Cubby Bear on Monday morning and noticed a gray sky that reminded him of the day he entertained everyone with that shot-and-a-beer press conference. That drive would be the calm before the storm.

Maddon talked playoffs and the World Series during his first media session as Cubs manager last November, taking over a team that had finished in fifth place for five years in a row and hasn’t won a championship since 1908. 

Maddon could have bought rounds all night at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee. It still would have sounded crazy, the Cubs piling up 97 wins, winning the National League wild-card game and getting the St. Louis Cardinals in a playoff series for the first time in a long-running feud that stretches all the way back to 1892.

Cubs fans hadn’t watched a home playoff game since 2008, waiting 12 years to see another postseason win at The Friendly Confines. After a wild 8-6 victory in Game 3, the Cubs took control of this best-of-five heavyweight matchup and on Tuesday can send the Cardinals home for the winter.

“To come full circle on this within a year is kind of amazing,” Maddon said, sitting in a cramped manager’s office that’s about the size of a dorm room and lined with framed photographs of Bruce Springsteen and Jackie Robinson. “To be at this particular moment with all that’s at stake — this is what you work for, man.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs out-slug Cardinals to take commanding control of NLDS]

Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder hung out on the field during batting practice. Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg emerged from exile wearing a No. 14 Ernie Banks jersey and threw out the first pitch. A crowd of 42,411 roared throughout the night.

A clip of the late, great Mr. Cub singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” ran on the video boards during the seventh-inning stretch. Cops on horseback lined up across Addison Street and rode south down Clark Street, trying to control any postgame mayhem.

“It’s kind of an incredible thought,” Maddon said. “Within the city itself, it’s been building the entire year. I live downtown, so I get to feel it daily, the response from the people. The fans — their support is incredible.

“To be in this position here in the first year with a young group of players — and do as well as we’ve done to this point and bring a playoff game back to this cathedral — (is) spectacular.

“I know our guys are ready to do it. I think the whole city is ready for this.”

[MORE CUBS: Jake Arrieta is human against Cardinals — but Cubs are that good]

The Best Fans in Baseball should get used to this scene.

Maddon admits he didn’t do the heavy lifting here. Before the game, a large group of baseball-operations staffers walked the dirt warning track while their names scrolled on the video board above the right-field bleachers.

On Sunday night, the Cubs hosted a reception for about 250 people, flying scouts and coaches and their spouses in from around the world, recognizing the hard work in identifying all this young talent and shaping those blue-chip prospects into real big-league players.

Maddon didn’t blink when he put together a lineup featuring four rookies — Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell — between the second and seventh spots. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro — the fourth and fifth hitters — are 26 and 25, have already made five All-Star teams combined and both remain under club control through at least 2020.

Together, that group drove in seven of the team’s eight runs, generating five homers, nine hits and three walks. When Russell left the game with a tight left hamstring after tripling in the fourth inning, Javier Baez (age: 22) took over at shortstop and got two more hits.

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell's status uncertain for Cubs-Cardinals Game 4]

“They’re kind of playoff rookies,” Maddon said. “But the old line that I’ve always adhered to is: After the first bomb falls, everybody becomes a veteran.”

“Every time I screamed,” Rizzo said, “I thought I was gonna faint. You gotta just keep breathing. It was everything we expected and more. Waving all the Ws at the end there, it was something special.”

When Maddon took this job, Jake Arrieta had never pitched a full season in the majors and Bryant and Russell hadn’t made their big-league debuts yet. Around this time last year, Schwarber was beginning instructional league in Arizona. Maddon, meanwhile, was watching NFL games in “The Cousin Eddie” when he got a call from Andrew Friedman.

Maddon had driven his RV to Hazleton, Pa., for a charity golf event in his hometown. Friedman told Maddon over the phone that he would be leaving the Tampa Bay Rays and taking a president’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

A few days later, Maddon found out his Chicago-based agent, Alan Nero, had negotiated an opt-out clause into his contract that triggered with Friedman’s exit.

“Poom!” Maddon said with a laugh. “That’s it.”

[MORE CUBS: Jorge Soler makes history as Cubs blast Cardinals in Game 3]

Maddon and his wife, Jaye, would soon host Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer at an RV park on Florida’s Gulf Coast, laying the groundwork for what would become the five-year, $25 million contract that changed the course of franchise history.

“It’s night and day,” said Jason Hammel, Tuesday’s Game 4 starter who returned as a free agent after getting flipped to the Oakland A’s in the Russell/Jeff Samardzija deal. “You feel a good vibe around town, lots of blue walking around.

“The pride that this city already has with its sports teams ... I mean, it’s glowing now. The whole city is talking about the Cubs. We’re very excited to put a product on the field — and make it a competitive product. And they’ve been searching for that for awhile. It’s an honor to wear the stripes.”

Maddon remembered looking up at the big crowd and the light towers last year while managing the Rays and thinking Wrigley Field felt like a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator.”

Everyone around the team agrees now: This doesn’t happen without Maddon in the arena.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th 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.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.