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Joe Maddon’s effect on Cubs’ record difficult to quantify, but it's there

Cubs manager Joe Maddon talks to Dexter Fowler in the dugout during the game Saturday against the Diamondbacks. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

In his first game back after throwing a no-hitter against the Dodgers last Sunday, Jake Arrieta threw 116 pitches and gave up only four hits in a 2-0 win against the Diamondbacks at sunny Wrigley Field.

Sunny, sunny, sunny.

We won’t even question the pitch count for Arrieta.

If his arm falls off sometime after this 18th win — most in the majors — well, we know manager Joe Maddon will be there at his bedside, offering up his own right wing out of kindness.

The Cubs are 20 games over .500 again, and new skipper Maddon is a good part of the success.

It’s virtually impossible to tell which wins a manager delivered and which ones his team would have earned with Daffy Duck at the helm. But the intangibles for a manager are everything, even if they can’t be quantified.

What does the manager say in the clubhouse? What’s the vibe he projects? Does he play the right guys? Does he know the game so well it’s like a first language? Does he get the best from everyone?

Can he keep the pressure off when it becomes too much? More than that, can he make the pressure enjoyable?

Maddon looks like the grizzled guy you’d meet at the end of the bar, cheerfully watching ballgames on the fuzzy TV, nursing a can of beer, talking to anybody about anything.

That in itself is a vibe that has to be worth a couple wins.

Indeed, when you hear a player say something bad about Maddon, it will be a first. They didn’t on the Rays when he was there, and they don’t on the Cubs.

It’s obvious he makes his players comfortable. They’re like customers who scooch up their stool and say, “Watcha watching there, mister?’’

Maybe Maddon hasn’t turned the formerly bland Orioles pitcher Arrieta into this Cy Young candidate.

But he has contributed to Arrieta’s focus and calm. Imagine, Arrieta’s 15 straight quality starts this season are the most for a Cubs pitcher in the last 82 years. Something’s going on.

Before the game, pitcher Jason Hammel was loosening up by playing catch with fans in the center-field and left-field bleachers with an NFL football. He’d fling it way up there over the ivy-covered walls; somebody would snag it and throw it back.

Was he a quarterback back in the day?

“I wish,” he said. “I started playing football at 7, then after awhile my dad wouldn’t let me.”

I don’t know. Will you find that kind of looseness on most ballclubs?

When I asked Maddon during his pregame chat if he was having fun, the 61-year-old manager replied, “I am. Every day. That’s how I’ve been since spring training.’’

He explained.

“My baseball career, I’ve been very fortunate. So to not enjoy the moment, that would be my fault.”

This had shades of Phil Jackson’s once-ridiculed mindfulness/Zen approach to living in the moment, so the past and future didn’t overwhelm one.

“I believe in that stuff,” Maddon said. “It is about today. I promise you when that game was over last night [the 14-5 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday], I had dinner with my wife and some friends, hung out, and I just dropped it, man. I went to bed at 9 o’clock.”

Tension, he said, just doesn’t work in baseball.

“It’s a waste of time. [Planning] is necessary. But what’s really necessary is if I get a good night’s sleep, I think I can do a better job today. It’s all about the players, anyway. If they see me be consistent in my approach, we have a much better chance of them being consistent in their approach. That’s the stuff I believe in.”

He has moved players around: Kris Bryant to right field, Kyle Schwarber to left field, Starlin Castro to second base, Addison Russell to shortstop, Javy Baez to third base — and it all seems to work.

He is amazed at Baez, the 21-year-old who has had so much heartbreak to overcome in his brief career.

“When I was 21, all I cared about was where we were going on Friday nights. That’s it,” Maddon said.

He has deep empathy for all his charges, and he doesn’t freak when they screw up.

“I expect them to make mistakes,” he said. “Go ahead and make them, please! As long as their work is good, it’s no big deal.”

He quickly added, “I don’t like mental mistakes. If they’re in the wrong position, missing cut-off guys, just not thinking or focusing in advance. Those are things that bother me. But the actual physical errors never bother me. Ever.”

I asked him what I prefaced as maybe a strange question about philosophy and books he has read.

“I love strange,” he said, excited.

And then the Cubs won again.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com