Cubs

Once again, Joe Maddon’s Cubs respond to the win-or-else pressure

Once again, Joe Maddon’s Cubs respond to the win-or-else pressure

The Cubs are going to need a bigger target. Just imagine the circus atmosphere and suffocating expectations when Joe Maddon’s team reports to spring training next year in Arizona – either as the defending World Series champs or after coming agonizingly close without winning the franchise’s first title in 108 years.     

Both of those possibilities are still in play after a gutsy 3-2 win over the Cleveland Indians on Oct. 30 – the latest the Cubs have ever played a game at Wrigley Field in franchise history. The Cubs went into Game 5 with one primary thought in mind: Just get back to Cleveland.    

Maddon managed with a sense of urgency, pulling big-game pitcher Jon Lester after 90 pitches, trusting rookie reliever Carl Edwards Jr. for two batters in the seventh inning and using superstar closer Aroldis Chapman to get the last eight outs.  

With last year’s Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) lined up to start Tuesday night on extra rest, this season’s ERA leader (Kyle Hendricks) positioned to start a Game 7 if necessary and Kyle Schwarber ready to change the entire complexion of this lineup as the designated hitter at Progressive Field, the Cubs are set up for either an epic comeback or a massive disappointment.

“Again, it doesn’t matter,” Maddon said. “It really doesn’t matter. From Day 1, we’ve been engulfed, surrounded, inundated with these thoughts. And my guys have handled it great. You cannot handle it any better, I don’t think, than our guys have handled it.

“I don’t think there’s any Cub fan throughout the universe actually that would not be happy with where we’re at – at this particular moment – based on what’s occurred over the last century and over the last several years.”

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The last time the Cubs faced an elimination game, Maddon invited Simon the Magician to perform in the Wrigley Field clubhouse. That idea sounded more like a manager running out of ideas with his team down 3-0 in last year’s National League Championship Series.

Except for the Chapman move, Maddon didn’t pull anything out of his bag of tricks with the Cubs down 3-1 in the World Series, knowing that the New York Mets and all their power pitchers posed different problems than a Cleveland team built around a No. 1 starter (Corey Kluber) and a deep, versatile bullpen that has covered up so many holes in the roster.

Plus, the 2016 team is a year older and a year wiser, with so much more across-the-board talent and a $155 million ace on the mound. The Cubs (obviously) made batting practice optional and instructed their players to be dressed by 5:30 p.m. for a 7:17 first pitch.

“No magicians,” Maddon said. “The guys have been fine all year. I don’t want to confuse things out there right now. There were moments last year where I thought it was necessary. Right now, I think they’re able to stand on their own without all the diversions.

“Bill Murray was walking around here yesterday before the game though.”

The Cubs brought some of this upon themselves, from Maddon’s look-at-us stunts to John Lackey’s “didn’t come here for a haircut” act to Lester reminding everyone at various points in the season that this team hasn’t done anything yet.

But if the young Cubs looked like they were trying too hard in Games 3 and 4 – and feeling the enormity of Wrigley Field’s first World Series events in 71 years – then they settled down to win a tense Game 5.

“I really anticipate that we’re going to be able to finish this off,” Maddon said. “You still look at the steppingstones, the building blocks to get to this point. You can’t tell me last year wasn’t successful just getting to the (NLCS).

“You can’t tell me this year wasn’t successful getting to the World Series. I just don’t buy that kind of logic. You get to this moment and there are so many micro pockets that can occur. Like right now, we’re having a hard time with their pitching staff in a seven-game series. Over the course of 162, you can absorb those moments and move on and get to the next team and right yourself.

“I’m not of that mindset at all that the winner-take-all is the successful one and the one that doesn’t is not.”

This might be remembered as the defining momentum swing, the Cubs starting to look like that 103-win team again. The heart of the order pieced together the big inning the Cubs needed in the fourth against Trevor Bauer, scoring three runs with a mixture of Bryzzo power (Kris Bryant homered into the left-center field bleachers before Anthony Rizzo settled for a double when his ball didn’t go over the right-field wall) and small-ball creativity (Ben Zobrist’s line-drive single, Addison Russell’s infield single, Javier Baez’s bunt, David Ross’ sacrifice fly).

Now some of that pressure the Cubs felt will shift onto the Indians. Two wins from baseball immortality? The Cubs would have taken that when the mimes and zoo animals showed up in spring training.

“Of course, the goal is to win it all,” Maddon said. “But there’s also the building component, the culture component, all the different things that permit you to be excellent on an annual basis that are now in place. All those things matter.”

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

Javy Baez has only seen one pitch in the Cubs-Phillies series, but that's all he needs to make a major impact.

"El Mago" notched his first walk-off RBI since May 8, 2016 in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night, lacing the only pitch he saw from Juan Nicasio down the right-field line. Baez had missed the entire series to that point due to a heel injury he suffered Sunday in Washington D.C. and actually underwent an MRI before Tuesday's game to make sure there was no other damage.

Baez's single put the finishing touches on the Cubs' first win this season when trailing after eight innings. They now lead the majors with five walk-off victories.

After another blown lead by the bullpen (the third in the last week), the Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth down 2-1, but Kris Bryant led off with a walk and then Anthony Rizzo doubled. After a Willson Contreras flyout, Jason Heyward was intentionally walked and then Albert Almora Jr. hit a tapper in front of home plate that Bryant just barely beat out at home to tie the game.

Then came Baez, as Joe Maddon opted to go to the hobbled star in place of Daniel Descalso, who was 0-for-4 on the evening to that point.

Prior to the ninth inning, Maddon wasn't sure if Baez would even be available to pinch hit in the game, but trainer P.J. Mainville taped up Javy's foot/ankle at the start of the inning and gave the Cubs skipper the all-clear.

"Just give PJ some credit on the tape job," Maddon joked. "This is right out of the Lombardi era kind of stuff. Tape and aspirin — go ahead and play. That's what everybody's football coach said."

If Baez hadn't delivered the walk-off hit and the Cubs wound up in extra innings, Maddon said he didn't know if Baez would be able to even play the field on his injured heel and the only player left on the bench was backup catcher Victor Caratini.

"In moments like that, you can only think it so far," Maddon said. "And then at some point, you gotta throw it at the wall and see what happens."

Maddon doesn't know if Baez will be able to play Wednesday night, but plans to make two lineups and then check with the shortstop to see about his status when he arrives at the field.

Baez's Cubs teammates are no longer surprised at the ridiculous things he does or how easy he makes some very difficult tasks look. Bryant joked he was actually upset Baez didn't hit it over the fence for a walk-off grand slam.

"I don't even know what's going on with him half the time anyway," Bryant said. "It's like, 'oh, Javy's pinch-hitting. And then I was debating like, 'don't swing at the first pitch," but I was like, 'no, it's Javy.' 

"It was awesome. He just like goes up there and swings the bat. If he didn't have to run to first base, he wouldn't. It's just like, 'I'm so good, I'm just gonna get this hit and then we're gonna go home.'"

However awe-inspiring Baez's Kirk Gibson impression was, the only reason the Cubs were even in the spot to win the game at that moment was because of the hustle and aggressive baserunning from Bryant. 

His game-tying run on Almora's tapper in front of the plate was huge, but his first trip around the bases was even more impressive. 

With Bryant on second base and Rizzo on first in the first inning, both runners were off on the full-count pitch to Contreras, who hit a routine grounder to Phillies shortstop Jean Segura. As Segura made the throw to first to retire Contreras, Bryant never hesitated around third base and scored on some heads-up, aggressive baserunning that looked like a page right out of the El Mago Playbook.

Bryant said as he was running, he thought about what it's like to play the left side of the infield on such a routine play and felt like he could catch the Phillies by surprise.

"I saw [third base coach Brian Butterfield] holding me up, too, and I just kept going," Bryant said. "I almost felt like I had eyes in the back of my head. It was kind of like one of those experiences that it's hard to explain, but I just kept going."

That run was all Jose Quintana and the Cubs needed for six innings, until Carl Edwards Jr. came on in relief for the seventh. Edwards allowed a leadoff single and then a double two batters later, giving way to Brandon Kintzler with two outs.

Kintzler gave up a groundball single up the middle to Andrew McCutchen and just like that, the Cubs' thin 1-0 lead had evaporated in the blink of an eye. And with the offensive issues (they were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before Baez's hit), that looked to be enough to send the Cubs to their second straight defeat in frustrating fashion.

But the magic of El Mago and Bryant allowed the Cubs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and send fans home happy and with a little more belief that this just might be a special summer on Chicago's North Side.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

Hear from Jake Arrieta after his first start as a visitor at Wrigley Field, including his thoughts on facing his former teammates and the standing ovation he received during his first at-bat (1:30). Then, Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by MLB Network's Mark DeRosa to discuss the Cubs' leadoff spot, the team outperforming expectations so far, and much more (8:15).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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