Cubs

Maddon’s playoff message to Cubs and Schwarber's role in wild-card game

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Maddon’s playoff message to Cubs and Schwarber's role in wild-card game

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs should run all the numbers, analyze where the Pittsburgh Pirates will probably hit the ball against Jake Arrieta and break down every possible lineup combination and bullpen matchup.

But the National League wild-card game will likely hinge on Arrieta pitching like a Cy Young Award winner, whether or not he can do what Madison Bumgarner did to the Pirates last year, carrying the San Francisco Giants to their third World Series title in five seasons.

Yes, manager Joe Maddon wanted another look and played Kyle Schwarber in right field against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night at Miller Park. That could be a wild-card preview, especially since PNC Park’s dimensions mean there is less ground for a part-time catcher to cover in right field than in left.

[MORE: Jake Arrieta gets one more shot to make Cy Young case]

Maddon also started Kris Bryant in left field, still experimenting and maximizing versatility at Game 160 to get a better feel for Game 163.

“All these guys have been all over the map,” Maddon said. “I wanted to make sure they’re aware of all the different parts. I wanted to see what it looked like.”

The buildup to this one-game playoff has intensified the obsession Cubs fans and the Chicago media have with the daily lineup. But on some level, the Cubs know this is overkill after playing the Pirates 19 times already this season – and winning 11 of those games.

“I’ve asked for our geeks to send me some stuff to just look at,” Maddon said. “I’m always looking for other people to give me opinions.

“(It’s more) the skills that we have, whether we’re looking for more offense – or more defense – and how that plays. But to break down all the minutia…

“I’ve learned that the scouting reports at that time of the year – if you could grab a nugget or two – don’t even give them to your players. They just need to go play. Now if there’s something in-game you can remind somebody about, that’s probably the best way.

[RELATED: What if Cubs had traded for Jonathan Papelbon?]

“Believe me, it sounds like you’re nuts. They should be able to handle this. They’re big-league players. They’ve been doing this for a long time.

“Our game really requires kind of an open, free mind to play. And if you’re bogging it down with stuff, man, it can only get in the way.”

That’s how Starlin Castro has been playing since losing his job to Addison Russell. The three-time All-Star shortstop has looked sharp defensively at second base, carefree in the clubhouse and locked in at home plate in September (1.202 OPS).

Castro should also feel confident facing Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA), going 6-for-17 with a walk and a sacrifice fly in 19 plate appearances against Pittsburgh’s ace.

“He definitely plays in a very non-uptight manner,” Maddon said. “I love the fact that he goes out there and he’s tension-free.”

[NBC SHOP: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]

Ultimately, it took four years for the Theo Epstein administration to build a playoff roster. The rest is fringe stuff, which could still be important in an elimination game featuring two stud pitchers and two teams with at least 190 wins combined.

But the Cubs already made their biggest decisions, drafting big bats like Schwarber and Bryant and trading for foundation pieces in Russell and Arrieta and hiring the manager you would want making all those decisions in real time.

“It’s the team that plays the better game that night, catches the ball, works a better at-bat,” Maddon said. “Your pitcher’s going to be in charge of the moment, primarily. That’s how I look at it.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.