The significance of the Cubs’ seminal series against the MLB–leading Cardinals over the weekend reverberated into Monday’s series opener against the buzz-less Brewers.
Team president Theo Epstein revealed that fired up manager Joe Maddon, who called out the Cardinal Way and issued veiled threats Friday about finishing what the “vigilante” Cards started by throwing at Anthony Rizzo, was the “cooled-down Joe” by the time he talked to media that day.
Maddon compared shortstop Addison Russell — with a tone of great admiration – to his bulldog Winston for the way Russell reacted coolly to hard slides by the Cards on Sunday, apparently much like Winston reacts when a cat scratches his face.
And catcher Miguel Montero talked about how “sexy” he feels. “We all do,” he said.
Bare-knuckled Maddon? Cat-scratch fervor? Too sexy for third place?
Whatever their toughness quotient or sex appeal beyond the clubhouse doors, the Cubs have two weeks left of business to take care of before they can be sure where they stand – much less how prepared they are for what comes next.
“It’s already over,” said Montero, who singled home a run during the Cubs’ on the way to a 9-5 win over the Brewers. “We won those games; now we’ve just got to look forward, keep winning games, and when the time comes, we’ve just got to beat them again.”
Meanwhile, if they’ve got one thing to figure out before they get that far, it was on display – on the mound – Monday night.
After the comeback victory that dropped the Cubs’ magic number for clinching a playoff berth to four, Maddon called the Cubs’ rotation after Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester “very fluid.”
And Monday’s starter, Jason Hammel, needs a flotation device.
Hammel gave up a pair of first-inning runs – one earned, one the result of his throwing error on a pickoff attempt – and needed 104 pitches to get through a command-challenged five innings.
“Absolutely it’s fluid,” Maddon said of the back half of his playoff rotation. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not. There’s a lot of discussion involved in that part of the rotation.”
By all accounts, Hammel is back to full health since his midseason leg injury, and all involved say his stuff is as good as it was during his early season success.
“Trying to fix it in the middle of a pennant race obviously isn’t the easiest thing to do, but I guarantee you I’m out there working hard to try to figure it out,” said Hammel (9-6), who insists he’s confident he’ll be the Cubs’ No. 3 starter when the playoffs start.
“I’m confident in myself,” he said. “I’m never going to be questioning [that]. Obviously, you’d like to see some better results right now. It’s disappointing; it doesn’t look that great right now. But sometimes you’ve got to compete with what you’ve got.”
Maddon said he and pitching coach Chris Bosio have ideas to sharpen Hammel over his final two starts of the regular season. And Hammel said he’s seeing some “small things” to build on.
But he’s still getting vexed by first-inning runs – his first-inning ERA now 5.59 compared to 3.42 the rest of the game.
If the Cubs end up in a full-fledged playoff series, and Hammel isn’t in the starting mix?
“It’s past the ego thing,” he said. “You check your ego at the door. Once October hits you’ve got to put your best guy out there, and I want to be that guy.”
Widening the lens on this team after its 5-2 run against the Cardinals and Pirates over the previous week, confidence doesn’t seem to be lacking anywhere around the Cubs.
“Look what it takes to beat us right now, the way we’re playing,” Epstein said, talking about the growth of the Cubs since April into a team on pace to win 95 games. “St. Louis won that game [4-3 Sunday], and they deserved to. But you’ve go to show up and do a lot of things right to beat us right now the way we’re playing.”
On Monday, it was the way the hitters pounded Wily Peralta and the Brewers’ bullpen for 13 hits, including six for extra bases – including Jorge Soler’s pinch three-run homer in the seventh.
Along the way, Anthony Rizzo reached base all five trips to the plate, Kris Bryant had three hits, and Starlin Castro had a pair of doubles and two RBIs – giving him nine RBIs in the last four days.
“It’s on us to keep playing that way and take it to another level when the games mean the most,” Epstein said.
So much for the Cardinals Way that Maddon slammed Friday? So much for St. Louis-like aspirations as a rebuilt organization in Chicago?
“Just because we hate them on the field doesn’t mean we can’t respect the job they’ve done for almost 100 years with how they can acquire young talent and [develop it] in a certain way,” Epstein said.
“But I think the Cub Way is starting to develop a certain reputation, too. Things have gone pretty well here the last few years, and there are probably some organizations looking at how we do things and might want to copycat some of it, too.
“But all that matters is how our players feel about themselves, how they feel about their teammates, how they feel about being Cubs and how they perform at the most important times.
“It’s hard to watch our team and not feel good about the way our players are feeling right now.”