Joe Maddon will again be under the microscope with Cubs back in playoff mode

WASHINGTON – “Manager of the Year,” one player sarcastically said to another in the hallway as they passed a group of reporters walking into Joe Maddon’s office for a postgame press conference.

The Cubs had just beaten the Milwaukee Brewers in an intense 10-inning game at Miller Park, where it already felt like the playoffs in late September, the defending World Series champs closing in on a second straight division title and a third consecutive playoff appearance, something this franchise had not done since Wrigley Field opened more than a century ago.

Minutes after that throwaway line, cranky pitcher John Lackey gave a “Ya think?” answer to a question about wanting to throw more innings. It’s not easy herding millionaires with huge egos and their own agendas. But that scene in the visiting clubhouse – while the Cubs were operating at their highest level all season – reinforced the idea that something had been a little off with this team.

So while Dusty Baker has more to lose — no contract for next season, no World Series ring as a manager —  Maddon’s decisions will be magnified in a best-of-five National League Division Series where the Washington Nationals might have more on-paper talent in every phase of the game.

It begins Friday night at Nationals Park, where the Cubs nearly self-destructed in late June, chatty backup catcher Miguel Montero talking his way off the team and the never-ending victory tour making a second White House stop within six months.

Do you think Kyle Hendricks will be allowed to pitch deeper into Game 1?

“I’m not Joe Maddon,” said Jon Lester, who didn’t get the clean situation everyone expected when he replaced Hendricks with two outs in the fifth inning of last year’s World Series Game 7. “I don’t make those decisions. As a pitcher, I’m sure he wants to throw nine every time, just like the rest of us do.

“You don’t even know if (Kyle’s) heart’s beating out there half the time. I’m sure he gets frustrated when he gets taken out of games, just like the rest of us do as well.

“I just hope he pitches well and we don’t have to worry about any decisions.”

The thing with Maddon is that his greatest strengths — deep trust in players to do the right thing, an expectation the clubhouse will police itself, a relentlessly upbeat attitude, the stubborn belief in his philosophy — can at times also look like his biggest weaknesses.

It can also be a matter of perception. The sloppy fundamentals and lack of urgency during a 43-45 first half left Theo Epstein’s front office considering the remote possibility of dealing Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and All-Star closer Wade Davis before the July 31 trade deadline and flipping those upcoming free agents for prospects.

That 49-25 surge after the All-Star break also reflected a manager who kept his cool and mostly contained the frustrations at a time when you wondered if this team would listen to anyone, anyway, because everyone kept telling the Cubs how great they were, how great they are and how great they will be in the future.

“Joe’s super-consistent and very positive and manages with the big picture in mind,” Epstein said. “Look at what we’ve done in the second halves under him.”

Since Maddon used the escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2014 season, the Cubs have gone 118-57 in August, September and early October, plus winning five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.

“He’s been the same guy since Day 1,” said Kris Bryant, who has won Rookie of the Year and MVP awards and a World Series ring and advanced to the playoffs three times during his first three seasons with Maddon/in the big leagues.

“He’s very hands-off. He trusts his players. He knows that we all want to win. He knows that we’re going to prepare for every game, so he feels like he doesn’t need to go out there and hoorah and tell us all this stuff to get us ready. He knows that we have a good group here.

“He’s been the perfect manager for a young team, that’s for sure.”

By his own admission, Maddon is not a rules guy or a rah-rah motivator. He doesn’t come with big-league playing experience or an expertise in pitching mechanics or the science of hitting. He also didn’t bring out the zoo animals or as many dress-up gimmicks this season.

“You can play that stuff out too much,” said Ben Zobrist, who made his big-league debut with Maddon’s 101-loss Tampa Bay team in 2006. “You can do a little bit too much. He probably pulled back a little bit (compared to) past years.

“Our team was so loose all year, anyways. There wasn’t really a moment in the season where we didn’t pick each other up or we were hanging our heads or guys weren’t wanting to work.

“A lot of these guys are just intrinsically motivated.”

The strategy questions followed Maddon after the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field last November and lingered into the winter meetings and spring training. Maddon didn’t publicly second-guess himself about how he used superstar closer Aroldis Chapman and doesn’t see the point in dissecting the job he’s done this year.

“It doesn’t matter, really,” Maddon said. “I’m pleased in the sense that what I’ve always believed I’ve carried here. And I haven’t backed down on my belief system regarding how to work with the baseball team, how to run a game, how to help promote it, develop young players. All that stuff, nothing has changed.

“It’s nice to see that your methods are validated. Because as you move it along, you really are secure and understanding what you believe is right on. There are times where you are just trying stuff, you don’t even know. But then you get to a certain point where you feel pretty strongly about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

“If anything, I’ll concede one thing: That these last three years overall have validated the teaching principles I’ve learned in this game and how to go about it. The people that I learned from are a really special group.”

The end scene for a baseball lifer will be the free-flowing Hall of Fame speech Maddon will someday give on a summer afternoon in Cooperstown, New York, name-dropping all his old coaches and buddies from places like Lafayette College and the Texas League, the back fields he once worked and the miles he drove as a scout, all the experiences that shaped him into an iconic manager. But the rest of this Cubs season is unwritten, and it will be fascinating to see if Maddon pushes the right buttons now.