SAN FRANCISCO – Most people seem to have a hard time imagining ways the Cubs can get much better than their best-in-baseball start seven weeks into the season.
But Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he’s seen it firsthand the last two games in San Francisco.
That’s when Jorge Soler reversed a season-long, downward trend in the span of two nights, including what might have been his best all-around game in the majors:
In Friday’s 8-1 victory, he made two good catches on drives to the left field wall, hit a home run during a multi-hit night in which his hardest hit ball was an opposite-side liner to second, and got out of the box so aggressively on a routine single in the second that Maddon saved most of his praise for that play.
“I don’t even care about the home run. At all,” Maddon said. “I saw a major league baseball player out there, the way he ran the bases, the way he played defense, his focus during the course of the game.
“That’s the kind of mental effort that can make him a superstar.”
In Saturday’s 5-3 loss he worked a third-inning walk, drove an opposite-field double off the right field wall in the eighth and made another aggressive defensive play in left on a third-inning would-be double by Trevor Brown. Soler cut off the ball in front of the warning track to his right, then turned in one motion and threw a liner to Javy Baez at second for the out on a play so close that Brown was originally ruled safe until Maddon challenged the call.
“He played baseball again at a high level,” Maddon said.
“I understand the message [from Maddon and coaches],” Soler said with the help of coach Henry Blanco translating from Spanish. “That’s what I’m working hard on and giving all I have on the field.”
That focus is what Maddon has preached since being hired before last season. During spring training, Soler, 24, even admitted he raised his focus level during an exceptional playoff run that included reaching base in nine consecutive plate appearances.
Soler has looked more like a candidate for demotion most of the season, his playing time diminishing until recently. Even after the two big games, Soler’s production for the season was a meager .204 with a .623 OPS.
“I want to believe that he understands what we’re talking about, and now he went out and did it,” said Maddon, who’s still waiting to see Soler sustain that mentality level for an extended run.
“I’m only worried about what he’s thinking,” Maddon said, “because physically he’s got all the gifts that God can bestow on a baseball player.”