NEW YORK – It seems that magician Joe Maddon brought to the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon made the New York Mets’ bats disappear longer than anyone figured.
But if you think that was a good trick, get a load of the sleight of hand Maddon keeps pulling off with a team that’s too young, too thin at the back half of its pitching staff, too “offensively challenged” to be in playoff position in July.
Yet after Wednesday’s 2-0, 11-inning victory over the New York Mets, the Cubs were back in front of the Giants in National League wild-card position, and salty veterans were talking about Maddon’s youth-centric shtick in reverent tones.
What kind of weird magic is this?
“You never know how to take it from the other side,” said the often stern-faced Jon Lester, a World Series veteran from the Boston Red Sox who looked cynically at Maddon when the division-rival manager did the crazy zoo-animal and theme-dress-up days with the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Especially being rivals you don’t really know if it’s unprofessional or if it’s this or that,” Lester said. “Being around him, it’s great. Especially for these guys that are young and haven’t done this, to keep it light to keep it entertaining.”
To bring in Simon the magician to dazzle and amaze a bunch of players who looked dazed and confused only 48 hours earlier.
Then to watch them snap a five-game losing streak with a 1-0 victory, follow it up with a 2-0 win, extend the pitching staff’s scoreless streak to 23 innings – and to do it all while hitters struggle to hit and a growing number of players claim to actually start believing in baseball magic.
No? In the ninth inning Wednesday, Anthony Rizzo led off with a double and after a one-out intentional walk to Chris Coghlan, the Cubs pulled off a double steal – even though the throw beat Rizzo by five feet.
But Rizzo ad-libbed a quick stutter-slide, shifting his lead foot, and getting around third baseman Daniel Murphy’s tag – looking over at his dugout afterward and saying, “It’s magic! It’s magic!”
Lester, who rediscovered his own magic for seven scoreless innings Wednesday, doesn’t try to explain it all.
“I’ll use whatever we can get right now,” he said.
With teammate Chris Denorfia’s new clubhouse mix delivering the classic strains of “Abracadabra” by The Steve Miller Band behind him, Lester laid to rest for good any cynicism he might have had for Maddon’s odd-looking managing methods.
“It’s not tacky. It’s not in your face. It’s nothing that goes overboard with anything,” Lester said. “It’s all out of good fun. And enjoying playing baseball and winning baseball games.”
How else to explain winning despite hitting so poorly with men in scoring position that by the time the Cubs got their first such hit Wednesday it not only failed to produce a run, but it resulted in the second out of the 11th inning?
The Cubs are one of the worst teams in National League with men in scoring position this season (.232) – the worst with a winning record.
They were 0-for-8 in this one through 10 innings – and 1-for-their-last-30 – when Coghlan singled to left with two on in the 11th. And got an out for his trouble when third-base coach Gary Jones suddenly held a charging Rizzo at third, as trailing runner Kris Bryant was caught 30 feet off second and easily thrown out.
“We’re a little bit challenge offensively right now,” Maddon said. “A lot of times teams will sink because of that. And we have not, and I really appreciate that, a lot.”
Starlin Castro followed the gaffe by topping a roller to third and beating out the throw for the winning RBI.
“Now we’ve got a mixed tape of magic music,” said Lester, who then nodded toward Rizzo. “And we’ve got Houdini over here running to third and saying it’s magic.”
And the Cubs’ pitchers have a 23-inning scoreless streak. And the Cubs have won all six games against the Mets this season with only Thursday’s to play. And the handkerchief just keeps flowing from Maddon’s sleeve.
“A lot of magic,” Castro said. “We keep doing that, and we’ll bring that magic guy back here again.”