Joe Maddon knew what Tommy La Stella could do.
But surely there weren’t many who predicted that La Stella would be among the best hitters in a lineup that features Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Dexter Fowler.
Of course, many of those guys have swung a good bat, too, as the Cubs have surged out of the gate to an incredible 22-6 start during which they’ve posted a jaw-dropping plus-98 run differential. But La Stella’s efforts — as well as those of Matt Szczur, David Ross and even Cubs pitchers — have been an important key in making the Cubs the best team in the big leagues.
“It shows how deep we are,” La Stella said Friday. “And it’s important because you have your horses — the guys who are going to carry the offense and the pitching and everything like that — but it’s important as you go down the stretch to have that depth, to give those guys days off so they’re fresh for the end of the year and to be able to fill in in big situations.”
La Stella has hit the cover off the ball this season, posting a .356/.420/.667 slash line with a trio of three-hit games. He continued that type of play Friday, hitting the first of the Cubs’ four home runs off Nationals ace Max Scherzer.
And he hasn’t been the only one. Szczur has a .367/.441/.600 slash line with 10 RBIs. Ross has gone from an offensive liability to a consistent contributor. He’s batting .250/.360/.450 after posting a gruesome .176/.267/.252 line last season and is just one RBI away from matching his 2015 total after already hitting twice as many homers as he did a year ago. Javier Baez was expected to be a prime offensive contributor, but he counts as a bench player, too, and he’s hitting .311.
“When you have bench players like that, you give your regular guys days off comfortably, game in progress, you can do things without any concern. It matters a lot,” Maddon said Saturday. “You don’t have the record that we have right now without a really wonderful supporting cast or other members that are able to participate as if they’re a regular.”
In a season with World Series expectations for the Cubs, a key would undoubtedly be to stay healthy. That hasn’t exactly been the case through nearly 30 games, as numerous players have hit the disabled list. Most notably, Kyle Schwarber’s season ended on the team’s season-opening road trip with that cringe-worthy knee injury. Miguel Montero, the team’s starting catcher, remains on the DL. Even Szczur is currently on the shelf.
But the Cubs haven’t missed a beat through any of it, getting offensive contributions from every spot in the order and every name on the roster. Maddon raved about up-from-the-minors catcher Tim Federowicz before Saturday’s game. In his first start with the team this season, outfielder Ryan Kalish reached base twice and scored a run in Thursday’s win.
“I think it speaks to the depth that we have. We’ve got a ton of guys that are capable of filling in,” La Stella said. “There’s a lot of talent on this team, and we’re deep and we’re young. Guys really pull for each other, I feel that makes a big difference. It doesn’t matter who’s in there, everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s pulling for each other.”
While it’s impressive seeing not-so-usual suspects fueling the Cubs’ remarkable start, the inverse might be true, as well. With so much talent, such high expectations and a clubhouse staying loose thanks to Maddon’s managing and all this winning, newcomers are finding it easy to jump in and contribute.
“It’s contagious in here. There’s confidence brewing in all aspects,” Kalish said. “The more everyone gets out there, the better. When you see guys like Tommy and people making names for themselves, it’s really good to watch.”
“That happens when you’re with any good team,” Maddon said. “The Patriots in football is a good example of that particular concept. I would say right now if you showed up at Golden State you’d become a pretty good basketball player. So I think when you get talented people that show up in a good environment, it’s going to bring out the best in you. And I’m not just talking about our clubhouse. I’m talking about the city, the fan base, the ballpark, the ownership. All those things matter.
“Ask any guy that’s new here ask how good they feel if they’re sitting on that bench or on that field when that game begins. There’s energy. There’s energy in the moment. I think maybe energy and expectation should become synonymous terms.”