Cubs

Playing mind games, Joe Maddon fires back at frustrated Cubs players

Playing mind games, Joe Maddon fires back at frustrated Cubs players

PITTSBURGH – Joe Maddon’s job is an endlessly complex maze of egos and insecurities. His players want to make history and know they will be judged in October. His boss just signed a five-year extension in the neighborhood of $50 million, making Theo Epstein perhaps the highest-paid personnel executive in the game. Reporters covering this team will consider this season a failure if the Cubs don’t win the World Series.  

But moments like this are why Maddon has his own $25 million deal, three Manager of the Year awards and the platform to become a multimedia star, liquor-store pitchman and T-shirt tycoon (for charity).

Maddon fired back after star pitcher Jake Arrieta and veteran catcher Miguel Montero questioned the manager’s in-game strategy during Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates – wondering why rookie Willson Contreras showed up behind the plate at PNC Park in the fifth inning – and overall spring-training philosophy since the Cubs clinched a National League Central title two weeks ago.

“My answer to that is we’re 7-2 in our last nine games,” Maddon said during Thursday’s pregame media session. “I don’t see any kind of real negative patterns right there. They all knew what was going to happen before that game. There were no surprises. And there has been no surprises.”

Except Arrieta had already done his paid weekly radio appearance on WMVP-AM 1000, telling “Waddle and Silvy” this: “Going into the game, I was really unaware we were going to go with a catching change.”

Still think this is entirely a media creation or something beat writers imagined while two established players made unsolicited comments?

The spring-training feel continued as the rain kept pouring down on PNC Park, with Thursday night’s game suspended and ending after five innings in a 1-1 tie. Major League Baseball considered this an official game – its first tie since it happened to the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros on June 30, 2005 – and stats will still count after an 83-minute delay.

But there is no need to make it up with the Cubs having already clinched the NL’s No. 1 seed and the Pirates eliminated from wild-card contention. The last time the Cubs finished in a tie – a 2-2 draw with the Montreal Expos on May 28, 1993 at Wrigley Field.

“Anything that changes your routine a little bit is a little frustrating,” said Ben Zobrist, who sat while Munenori Kawasaki started at second base in a Cactus League lineup. “Because this is such a routine-oriented game.

“Obviously, it’s frustrating at times. But I get it. I understand the overall goal of these games is not the same as it’s been the last six months of the year.”

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Arrieta described himself as “a little bitter” on ESPN Radio and also admitted that he “let my emotions get away from me” and could have handled the situation differently. But this has been building, from the awkwardness of three catchers to the six-man rotation concept to starting pitchers getting pulled early to relievers now working on a set schedule and players wanting to stay in a rhythm.

“You probably heard some things last night – I think if they had more time to think about it, they probably would not have said those same things,” Maddon said. “Up until (John Jaso’s three-run homer), I thought (Jake) was throwing the ball really well.

“And with the catching situation, we didn’t change that until they had four runs. So there’s really not a whole lot of credence to that, as far as I’m concerned.

“I don’t think it was attributable to a spring-training attitude as much as the Pirates had a good approach.”

Maddon isn’t going to alter his big-picture outlook after hearing about some of the clubhouse grumbling and manage Games 160, 161 and 162 any differently against the last-place Reds this weekend at Great American Ball Park.

“No, why would I do that?” Maddon said. “I utilized the word ‘spring training’ on several occasions, just to indicate the context regarding getting guys in and out of the game, not from the perspective of not trying to win.

“It’s still going to be scripted. They’re going to get their at-bats. Again, when you talk about recreating a ‘feel,’ that would be individualistic. It’s hard to replicate fighting for a playoff spot if you’ve already clinched it and you’re playing against a team that is not playing for anything either.

“These are all mind games you have to play with yourself in order to replicate what you want.”    

Of course, any portraits of frustration and miscommunication will be swept aside by those fun-loving Cubs posting photos on their social-media accounts of the football-jersey-themed road trip to Cincinnati. But this is a real issue for professionals who care about their craft and want to perform on the biggest stage of their lives.

“It’s a different kind of ‘on’ you have to be as a player,” Zobrist said. “That’s just weird for everybody right now to be experiencing that kind of feeling.”

Zobrist – who spent parts of nine seasons with Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays, knows the manager as well as any player in the clubhouse and won a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year – admitted the Cubs are getting a little stir crazy before their first postseason game at Wrigley Field.

“We’re all looking so forward to next Friday, but that’s over a week away still,” Zobrist said. “So we have to try to stay in the moment, even though our minds want to go in the future.

“That’s the tough thing right now – staying in the moment. It’s even tougher now than it is when you’re in the playoffs and everybody’s talking and there’s a lot of stuff going on off the field. It’s even tougher now, I think, because there’s not enough going on.”

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Well, it's finally happening, or at least it's going to happen. The Athletics' Ken Rosenthal reported during the MLB All-Star game that the Baltimore Orioles had agreed to officially move their franchise player Manny Machado. Neither team has confirmed anything at this time, but the deal has reportedly been as close to a done deal for the last day or so, and it would seem Machado is destined for finish his 2018 campaign in Hollywood. 

Of course, with this addition, the reigning National League champions look primed for another deep postseason run. Though, the club is clinging to a half-game lead in the NL West, with Machado in tow the Dodgers are right with the Cubs and Brewers as the elite squads in the National League. It could be argued the Dodgers didn't necessarily 'need' Machado, with an offense that was already in the top 10 in runs scored, but Machado might be the perfect addition for the Dodgers. 

After losing their young star shortstop Corey Seager for the season with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers were in need of a more permanent solution at shortstop. And despite Machado's defensive metrics showing a steep decline in his glove at shortstop, the Dodgers will welcome his robust slash line of .315/.387/.575 while ignoring any shortcomings on defense. 

But what this means for the Cubs, who are only two games off the 2016 World Series club pace, is the path to another championship will likely require another run-in with the Dodgers. The club's biggest threat has been at this point the Brewers, but it's not hard to envision the Dodgers distancing themselves as the clear favorites in the National League with Machado in the heart of the order.

The good news for the Chicago is at least Machado didn't end up in Milwaukee, but that also could mean the Brewers make a more concerted effort to acquire pitching before the July 30th deadline. The Cubs will also see the return of Yu Darvish, who despite only managing to win one game this season in a Cubs uniform, will be a massive upgrade over the scuffling Tyler Chatwood. If the Cubs pitching can start producing like many expected them to before the start of 2018, and guys like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant start to hit alongside All-Stars Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, it's not hard to imagine the Cubs separating themselves from the pack in the 2nd half of season. 

The Dodgers are no strangers to blockbuster deadline deals, acquiring Yu Darvish in a similar three-month rental situation, but the Cubs getting a bat like Rizzo right and an arm like Darvish healthy would be better than any deal Theo Epstein could make to improve this team. And if it's not enough, the Cubs have a solid track record of grabbing former Dodger rentals in the off-season. The push for the playoffs starts Thursday for the north-siders.