Joe Maddon’s honeymoon period essentially ended the night the Cubs won the World Series, an amazing statement on his big personality, this franchise’s DNA and what it means to be a modern manager.
It doesn’t really matter that the Cubs survived Game 7 against the Cleveland Indians and finally woke up from a World Series hangover to make it back to the playoffs for the third straight season, something this franchise hasn’t done in 100-plus years.
The Washington Nationals have so much individual talent in every phase of the game that Maddon will have to push the right buttons in this National League Division Series, putting every bullpen decision and lineup choice under the microscope.
How Maddon handled Aroldis Chapman in the biggest moment of his career became part of the backdrop when his bullpen blew up in the eighth inning of Saturday’s Game 2 loss at Nationals Park, a 3-1 lead suddenly becoming a 6-3 final score after Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman homered off Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery, turning this into a best-of-three chess match.
“It’s not fantasy,” Maddon said. “It’s not robotic. Both teams are good. They’re really good. We’re really good. (Harper) didn’t miss the curveball, because he shouldn’t have, because it was hung. If C.J. bounces that, he’s out. He’s frickin’ out.”
Yes, Maddon looked relaxed but sounded a little defensive while meeting with beat writers before Monday’s Game 3 at Wrigley Field, wearing Joe Namath’s green throwback No. 12 New York Jets jersey and sitting back at a desk cluttered with bobbleheads, bottles of red wine, lineup cards and a Dunder Mifflin coffee cup.
If you listen to Twitter and talk radio – and sometimes his co-workers – a guy who loves to quote Michael Scott gets treated like “The Office” boss an awful lot for someone who has a World Series ring and eight seasons with at least 90 wins during his 12 full seasons as a big-league manager.
“That’s the scrutiny we’re under these days,” Maddon said. “Part of it is social media, I think. Part of it is interacting with fans. I don’t even know what the percentage would be. There’s a percentage that gets angry. There’s a percentage that gets it. Just the angry ones get heard more than the non-angry ones.
“Listen, believe me, I have no issues. None. I don’t take it personally, believe me, because, like I said, I put this down well in advance.
“I felt really good about it. And I still do. He just hung a curveball.”
Edwards wants another shot at Harper, who posed and flipped his bat in the air after launching a no-doubt, two-run homer into the second deck in right field. Maddon doesn’t second-guess himself in public and already knew that he had the numbers on his side because Edwards handcuffed left-handed hitters during the regular season (.437 OPS, two home runs allowed in 129 plate appearances).
“Honestly, we talk about this,” Maddon said. “I write it down. We did our advance meetings. All that stuff, in my mind, was preset. There’s no ambiguities. It was the right thing to do.”
There might not be any good Game 3 choices if Max Scherzer is feeling good – and the Cubs are so deep that accomplished players will have to sit on the bench – but Maddon wanted lefty hitters against a two-time Cy Young Award winner who absolutely dominated right-handed hitters this year (.425 OPS, 158 strikeouts in 360 plate appearances).
Maddon had his reasons for hitting Jon Jay leadoff, trusting World Series MVP Ben Zobrist at second base and hating the idea of giving up Javier Baez’s transcendent defense at the beginning of the game.
One idea that really seemed to bother Maddon came up during Saturday’s postgame press conference, when he was asked if Zobrist somehow misplayed the Zimmerman home-run ball that cleared the left-field wall and landed in a flower box (or if another defender would have had a better shot at it).
“That was really awkward,” Maddon said. “Honest to God, when the question was asked, I didn’t know where he was going with it, because (Zobrist) caught a pop-up, and then he went to the wall on a homer, I’m thinking: ‘What did he screw up?’ I couldn’t think of anything.
“He’s not tall enough, I’m sorry. We don’t have one guy tall enough to do it.”
One more thing to remember: Listen to someone almost every day since spring training – and watch a team 162 times – and on some level you will begin to tune some of it out and find the flaws more easily than the strengths.
“Listen, everybody’s got a job to do,” Maddon said. “They got to get listeners, some people have to sell newspapers, whatever.
“I think it’s kind of funny. It’s part of the job, man. And that’s OK.”