You didn’t see any mimes or magicians or zoo animals running around the Wrigley Field clubhouse. Joe Maddon found a different way to send a spring-training message to the Cubs, dropping in on Monday afternoon’s standard pre-series meeting and addressing the hitters, an atypical move for a hands-off manager.
But the Cubs are in an unusual spot, clinching the National League Central by Sept. 15, and celebrating a division title exactly three weeks out from their next meaningful game. There will now be a Cactus League focus on fundamentals, areas of improvement and the bigger picture.
“Let’s work on some things that we know we need to get better at between now and when the playoffs begin,” Maddon said. “We have to really get our minds right over the next couple weeks to really be prepared properly for that first game. And I wanted it to start today.”
Maddon also picked a good time to speak to the hitters in this sense: The last-place Cincinnati Reds had already been the other team in Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter and Kris Bryant’s three-homer game. And the Reds have now allowed a major-league record 242 home runs this season after Jason Heyward’s two-run shot in the eighth inning of a 5-2 win that showed the Cubs are too talented to tank in late September.
“Just keep pushing,” said Heyward, who hadn’t homered since Aug. 22, when he was coming off the mental break at Coors Field that was supposed to reset the worst offensive season of his career. “Keep trying to be the best version of ourselves we can be.
“That’s the same thing (Joe’s) been preaching since spring training, the same thing he preached right before the All-Star break, and the same thing now. Just continue to try and do the little things right.
“Make sure that you guys have fun. And don’t take this moment for granted.”
Maddon doesn’t micromanage his hitting coaches or pretend he spent all night breaking down video or want his players obsessing about swing mechanics.
“Self-awareness,” Maddon said. “Honestly, that’s what it really comes down to. You get in moments, and there’s 40,000 people yelling and there’s guys on base and the guy’s got good stuff on the mound. Sometimes, you get caught up in all the emotion. I want us to be able to be self-aware: What’s required in that moment?”
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The Cubs lead the NL in on-base percentage (.341), walks and pitches seen, ranking second in runs scored. What had been, at times, a boom-or-bust offense has cut down the strikeouts, ranking fifth after leading the NL in that category by a wide margin last season. That doesn’t guarantee anything in October, but the Cubs have diversified their lineup with switch-hitter Ben Zobrist, second-year leaps by Bryant and Addison Russell and enough mix-and-match pieces to surround Anthony Rizzo.
“Sometimes players get so caught up in the physical/mechanical component of the game that they forget to just purely compete, so I wanted to remind them,” Maddon said.
“You can talk about situations. You can talk about runner on third and less than two outs, runner on second and nobody out. You can talk about whatever game situation you want to talk about. But at the end of the day, you have to be self-aware in that moment: What is required of me right now? And how do I go about this? And then purely because he has another uniform on, we’re trying to beat him. That’s what it should really come down to.”