As David Ross tried to fall asleep Monday night, he had to kept reminding himself that his team wasn’t playing the next day.
“You're anxious to get started,” the Cubs’ first-year manager said. “This is what all the hard work’s for.”
The 2020 MLB playoffs began Tuesday, but only for the American League. National League Wild Card Series open Wednesday. Ross is set to make his managerial postseason debut in the No. 3 seeded Cubs’ best-of-three series against the Marlins at Wrigley Field.
Though Ross said he’s felt “green” many times this unprecedented season, he’s never seemed out of his depth. Expect more of the same in the playoffs.
“The best managers I've been around in the postseason continue to bring the same attitude and the same preparation to the postseason as they did in the regular season,” Ross said. “You don't want to really mix it up. You want your players to feel comfortable going out there and being able to perform.”
All year Ross' players have applauded his energy and communication. During an on-field workout Tuesday, the same themes were visible.
Even while the pitchers were just practicing their pickoff moves – an innocuous drill – Ross' reactions could be heard from the press box. He drifted from first base, to home plate, to the line of pitchers next to the mound, talking with individuals and groups.
“I think he’s had a great first year by any standard,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “If you want to set aside for a moment everything that’s happened in 2020, and the unique circumstances, and just focus on the baseball part and how he’s led the group, I’ve been extremely impressed.”
The rookie skipper navigated the Cubs’ core slumping – Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit below .210 this season — to sill win the NL Central.
With Ross at the helm, the bullpen went from a concern to a strength. And even while they struggled, he limited the damage. Like when Craig Kimbrel issued four walks and hit one batter in the ninth inning at Cincinnati early in the year -- Ross replaced him with Jeremy Jeffress before the Cubs lost the lead.
Ross also navigated the injuries of starting pitchers Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood, building up Adbert Alzolay’s experience even after a rocky second start. The 25-year-old’s last regular season start was the best of his MLB career, as he struck out eight and allowed just one run in five innings.
In the final two weeks of the season, Ross seemed to shift toward playoff mode. After an emphasis on continuity for much of the year, Ross began to shuffle the Cubs’ batting order to try to “get some flow to the lineup,” as he put it.
Two weeks ago, Ross pulled former longtime teammate Jon Lester after just five innings and two runs, in what could have been Lester’s last start at Wrigley Field.
“When you remove yourself from the situation and you look at where he's at,” Lester said, “he's making the decision based on the Chicago Cubs and what we need to do to win that ballgame, not based on our friendship.”
Then, in a controversial move the next week, Ross took left fielder Kyle Schwarber out of a game after he misplayed a ball off the wall.
“David Ross – I can speak for the whole team – he’s got our undivided confidence and respect,” Schwarber said the next day.
Of course, baseball wasn’t the only thing Ross had to manage this year.
“Now throw in everything he and the other 29 managers have had to deal with in 2020 and just this surreal environment that we’ve all been operating in,” Epstein said. “I think he’s been a great leader in that regard and emphasizing the importance of the protocols, helping guys get through these difficult times psychologically, creating a family-type environment at a moment when a lot of players are separated from their real families. So, kudos to Rossy and the coaching staff.”
When a reporter asked Ross Tuesday if this season has affirmed for him that he’s good at this new job, a quintessentially self-deprecating Ross flashed a smile.
“I don't know whether I'm good at it or not,” he said. “I literally have no idea. I just try to be myself and do the best I can for this organization and the guys in that room.”