MESA, Ariz. – Until they finally played a cleaner game and won a game Wednesday, the young Cubs weren’t doing much to impress their new manager the first week of spring training games.
Overthrows. Underthrows. Routine fly balls landing between outfielders. Base
running gaffes. They committed seven errors Monday and Tuesday alone, with almost as many mental ones in that pair of games.
“My impression has been that the work has been great, but we’re not good at fundamentals in the game,” manager Joe Maddon said after running his squad through extra drills before regular work Wednesday morning.
So much for being able to recognize Will Ferrell without a scorecard Thursday when the “Anchorman” star joins the Cubs in their game against the Los Angeles Angels as part of a one-day, five-game HBO show/stunt in which Ferrell plans to play briefly for all 10 teams.
If Wednesday’s 4-3 win over the Dodgers isn’t the start of a new look for the Cubs this spring, Ferrell’s appearance figures to amount to little more than piling on with the comic relief.
“Physical mistakes are part of the game,” Maddon said. “Mental mistakes have no part in this game. So if we’re going to change the culture here they have to understand how, when you show up at the ballpark every day, it’s not about survival, it’s about winning.
“I’m not denigrating anything in the past. I’m just saying this is my impression right now.”
Maddon’s observations of the first week of games essentially underscore the hardest part of a team-building process that involves relying on a kiddie core of prospects to develop at generally the same time.
The natural instinct to think about how to perform well enough to “survive” with a big-league job often overrides the more important need to stay focused on little things such as basic communication, awareness on the bases, hitting situations, anticipation in the field, Maddon said.
“It’s impossible to really win with a bunch of guys who get caught in that mode where they’re just trying to stay there and not make mistakes,” he said.
The three home runs in a row Tuesday by top slugging prospects Jorge Soler, Javy Baez and Kris Bryant?
“That’s beautiful. That’s sexy. That’s cool,” Maddon said. “But I prefer the non-sexy components that nobody really bears down on during the course of the game that really helps you to win.
“The part that I cannot cope with standing in the dugout is when you’re not a good fundamental team. That bothers me. And that can be changed. I don’t care about your experience level, you can do these little things well and right. That’s where we’re at right now.”
It seemed to take for one day at least. Third baseman Mike Olt made a sharp play on a slow roller for a close out in the third and nearly had another out with a diving stop in the fourth in Wednesday’s game. Shortstop Starlin Castro stayed with a tough hop to get an out in the third and range deep up the middle, then spun and threw a split second late for a spectacular out in the fourth. And prospect Albert Almora had the catch of the day in the outfield, robbing Enrique Hernandez of extra bases in the seventh with an over-the-shoulder, sliding catch at the warning track.
“I’ll defend our guys’ work. Tremendous. Tremendous,” Maddon said. “But [until Wednesday] in games there’s been a disconnect in their work and how we play the game fundamentally. We’ve got to get rid of that disconnect.
“You can’t create magic – you don’t deserve magic – until you play the game properly. It should not come your way. And it won’t come your way. But if you play the game properly, then all of a sudden, these little things start rolling in your direction and you start expecting them to happen on a daily basis because you’ve earned it.”
Expect more fundamental drills daily, to the point of redundancy, over the next week or more, said Maddon, who plans to pull back for another big-picture look at the issue.
“I’m hoping to see improvement in 10 days,” he said, “and then after that have a window there going into the season, where you can really fine tune things.”