Cubs

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

This was hours after the Cubs dumped Miguel Montero for ripping Jake Arrieta, becoming the viral national story during a dead spot on the hot-take calendar with the NFL on hiatus and the NBA in between the draft and the start of free agency.

Roughly half the team skipped an optional trip to the White House, where that afternoon board member Todd Ricketts told Donald Trump the Washington Nationals would “crumble” against the Cubs in October. The Nationals at that point had a 98-percent chance to make the playoffs while the defending World Series champs were stuck around .500 and hadn’t been in first place in three weeks. That’s Cub.

Surrounded by reporters on June 28, star manager Joe Maddon sat on the bench in the visiting dugout at Nationals Park, knowing his team would also be playing shorthanded with a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) and Cy Young Award finalist (Kyle Hendricks) already on the disabled list and a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) demoted back to Triple-A Iowa the week before.

With his eyes shielded by sunglasses, Maddon listened to the question during his pregame media session: Are you concerned about the clubhouse starting to splinter?

“No,” Maddon said, pausing and leaning in as if he would launch into a filibuster or a philosophical dissertation or some story from his days as a minor-league instructor and instead going silent.

Why not?

“Because there’s no reason to,” Maddon said.

OK then, maybe we’re talking to the wrong guy here, because bench coach Dave Martinez usually runs interference and handles a lot of difficult conversations with players.

Just ask John Lackey, who responded this way after a 6-1 loss on June 12 when a reporter mentioned Maddon’s pregame suggestion that the veteran pitcher might change his approach this time against the New York Mets: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching. I don’t know what he’s talking about there.”

Lackey — who has a history with Maddon, three World Series rings and a 5.20 ERA that ranks 66th out of 74 qualified big-league pitchers — would later crush a softball question about Jon Jay after the super-sub delivered a pinch-hit, game-tying, three-run homer in a comeback win over the Tampa Bay Rays on July 5: “He’s been everything we needed this year. Honestly, I can’t believe he doesn’t play more.”

It’s hard to believe, but there are times where it feels closer to 108 years than eight-plus months since the Cubs last won the World Series.

For all the talk about this 43-45 team getting hot and having a run in them, the Cubs should also be concerned about the possibility of the bottom falling out and this second half turning ugly.

For all the speculation about Theo Epstein’s front office riding to the rescue at the July 31 trade deadline, this post-All-Star break window could be about making sure the Cubs don’t overreact and give up on the wrong young player and do something that blows up The Foundation for Sustained Success. 

That day in Washington, Maddon circled back to his belief in the clubhouse culture and the positive attitude and hands-off style that’s made him a three-time Manager of the Year and a future Hall of Famer. 

“Primarily, again, there’s a lot of guys missing,” Maddon said. “That’s the biggest thing. You’re not going to find splintering among (Albert) Almora and (Javier) Baez and (Addison) Russell and Willson (Contreras) and (Kris) Bryant, to answer your question specifically.

“It’s not about splintering. It’s about youthful players finding their way to the major-league level. We’re missing a lot of the key components that drove us to the World Series last year, and now we’re building another group of components that are going to take us back there again.”

Russell became the subject of a Major League Baseball investigation last month after a third party leveled an abuse allegation on social media, responding to his wife’s since-deleted Instagram post that accused him of infidelity and foreshadowed her divorce filing.

Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year and then starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but Maddon didn’t feel comfortable anointing him as the everyday second baseman. Baez has signed endorsement deals worth $2 million in the last six months, according to USA Today, joining forces with Nike, Toyota, Apple and David sunflower seeds and getting on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s body issue. 

Almora, Contreras and Ian Happ haven’t gone through a full season in the majors yet. Backup catcher Victor Caratini made his big-league debut after the Montero fiasco. 

“Splintering is not it at all,” Maddon said. “For me, it’s a patient, consistent approach with me doing my job as the manager and the coaches doing what they’re supposed to do in regards to bringing the message out there on a daily basis.

“It’s a different path. We’re fortunate we are in this division right now, based on the record and we’re still very solvent. (But) it’s an entirely different group — entirely different. I mean, to try to connect the dots between last year and this year, to me, is impossible.”  

Except it’s impossible to ignore after making history. A player agent once described meeting his client on the road last year and noticing the flocks of Cubs fans gathering and growing bigger and bigger as they walked through a mall near the team hotel. This is life after “Embrace The Target.”  

“That’s where you want to be,” said catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, who won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees. “You want to be that team. It’s this rock-star aura around this club now with all the young guys. Good players, good-looking guys – men, women, everyone wants to be around the team. It was the same way in New York.”

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Schwarber — who now has the lowest batting average (.178) among all qualified big-league hitters — became part of a Gatorade ad campaign, a face of the New Era hat company and a regular on WMVP-AM 1000. That’s the same station where Anthony Rizzo used his radio gig to either stick up for a teammate or do some of management’s dirty work, burying Montero before the DFA news leaked.

The Twitter account for Rizzo’s charitable foundation — which does admirable work for cancer patients and recently donated $3.5 million to Lurie Children’s Hospital — retweeted Rizzo’s ESPN 1000 comments: “When you point fingers you’re a selfish player. We have another catcher that throws everyone out.” The message above that since-deleted tweet: “Win together, lose together.”

“I think we have a great clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “Guys get along really well. We’re all joking around. We’re all having a good time. We’re just not 25 games over .500. We got to keep playing (and) come together and continue to fight.”

While Bryzzo Souvenir Co. didn’t get the ideal All-Star Game placement, Bryant and Rizzo still combined for 38 homers, 94 RBI and an OPS range between .894 and .928 in the first half. Yet the Cubs are still a stunningly mediocre team with 399 runs scored and 399 runs allowed and 61 errors through 88 games.

The Cubs keep talking about searching for their identity, because that beats the alternative of admitting they’ve already found it.

“It’s a hard thing to define,” Epstein said. “It’s like culture. You can go on and on trying to define it, but it’s like what the Supreme Court said about pornography: You know it when you see it.

“I think our identity last year was all our guys got to the point where they felt like they were part of something bigger than themselves. They felt completely connected with one another. They felt like they were on a mission to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

“I think part of their identity was they were keenly aware of how talented they were — and what a special opportunity it was — and how as long as they had each other’s backs, things would work out really well for this group. That meant maybe playing multiple positions or taking less playing time or backing up a teammate rather than playing a leading role.

“Nothing was going to get in the way of the group working together to make history and take advantage of the special opportunities that they had. Every year, the landscape is different. The environment is different. The challenge is different. The circumstances are different. And the group is different.

“Every year, a new identity has to emerge. And I think it just so happens that we’re still in the process of that happening. Again, it’s kind of been a stop-and-start first half of the season for us. We haven’t gotten on any kind of roll.”

Combined, the Cubs are 2-6 against the American League East and 6-11 vs. the Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, a reality check that means the next 74 games could become more and more about player development, 2018 auditions and planning for the future, even while trying to make up that 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Guys have been around enough, for the most part, to understand that tomorrow if something happens and I don’t walk in this clubhouse, the game will still be played,” Jon Lester said, the $155 million ace looking back on the churn rate. “Regardless of what moves that Theo and the front office and ownership and management feel we need to make, the game will still be played.

“That’s kind of how you have to look at it. There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s not too often that you have a team that doesn’t make a move through the entire course of a season. Some of them as a player you don’t like, and some of them as a player you agree with or whatever, but that’s not our job. Our job is to go out and play with who’s in this clubhouse and make the best of it. That’s all we can control.”

That starts again Friday night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, where the Cubs will either begin to finally click or continue this slow-motion collapse. As Lackey said: “Winning makes everything better.”

Cubs set the wrong kind of history in blowout

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USA TODAY

Cubs set the wrong kind of history in blowout

Cubs fans had plenty to cheer about late in Friday's game against the Cardinals, but not in the way they expected.

With St. Louis absolutely wearing out the Cubs pitching staff in an 18-5 blowout, Joe Maddon turned to a trio of position players to pitch.

In front of 41,077 people at Wrigley Field for the second game of the official second half of the season, Tommy La Stella came on to pitch for the Cubs with 2 outs in the top of the sixth inning. After La Stella got 4 outs, it was Victor Caratini's turn for the eighth inning.

It was the first time in recorded history the Cubs used two different position players to pitch. 

According to historian Ed Hartig, the Cubs have not used multiple position players in a game since at least 1907. The data is harder to discern before that point because so many players back then were both position players and pitchers.

Oh, but the Cubs weren't done yet.

Ian Happ got the nod for the ninth inning on the mound, serving as the third different position player on the mound. 

Seeing a position player pitch has actually been a pretty common occurence under Maddon as he's done everything he can to limit the stress on the bullpen:

Meanwhile, on the other side, Matt Carpenter had a record-setting game.

Before being removed from the game in the sixth inning, Carpenter smashed 3 homers and 2 doubles and drove in 7 runs. It tied a Cardinals record for total bases (16) while tying the MLB record for most extra-base hits in a game (5):

Of course, the fact he did it all before the game reached the seventh inning is remarkable:

Offensively, the Cubs left 11 men on base, which would normally be the focal point of ire for the fanbase if not for the rest of the day's events...

Joe Maddon is liking the look of Cubs 'backwards' lineup

Joe Maddon is liking the look of Cubs 'backwards' lineup

No matter how much people complain and Tweet, Joe Maddon will never go with a set lineup every game.

But that doesn't mean he won't let certain spots in the lineup settle in for a couple weeks in a row.

That's what may be occuring right now with Anthony Rizzo holding serve as the "Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" once again.

Rizzo made his 5th straight start atop the Cubs order Friday after collecting a pair of doubles and a walk in Thursday's 9-6 victory.

Initially, moving Rizzo from the heart of the order to the top was in part to help the Cubs first baseman get going. Maddon is a big fan of hitting guys leadoff to help them reset mentally and find their stroke again.

But it is working — Rizzo entered play Friday 8-for-16 with 5 doubles, 3 walks, 3 runs and 3 RBI in the leadoff spot over the last week. The promptly reached on a hit-by-pitch and walk his first two times up Friday.

He's also been the team's biggest cheerleader:

So how long will Maddon keep this unconventional lineup?

"I don't know," he said, smiling and shaking his head. "I don't know. He came up again in crucial moments [Thursday]. He looks really good out there. I don't know. That's my exact answer."

Yes, Rizzo is looking good in the leadoff spot, but his insertion atop the order has given the Cubs lineup a new dynamic. 

With Rizzo first and Kris Bryant second, the guys that are historically the Cubs' top two run producers are hitting atop the order and "behind" the pitcher's spot. 

But they're also the Cubs' top two on-base guys and Maddon is liking the look of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — two high-contact guys — following Bryzzo in the order, as they have done recently. (It doesn't hurt to have the NL leader in RBI — Javy Baez — hitting cleanup, either.)

"It's almost a backwards way of doing this right now that I'm finding fascinating," Maddon said. "So I'm just gonna let it play for just a little bit and see where it takes us."

It's taken the Cubs on a 4-game winning streak endcapping the All-Star Break, though the Cardinals got up big early Friday afternoon.

For a team that leads the NL in just about every important offensive category, it's going to be a huge key moving forward if Rizzo gets going on a consistent basis in the second half.