The reconstruction project Ryne Sandberg abandoned with the Philadelphia Phillies 11 months ago has been accelerated under the Andy MacPhail-Matt Klentak-Pete Mackanin regime, with catcher Carlos Ruiz, 37, the only 30-something in the lineup that faced the Cubs on Friday. Ruiz and 36-year-old first baseman Ryan Howard, who started Saturday, are the last vestiges of a team that split back-to-back World Series in 2008-09.
A desire to let MacPhail hire his own guy was Sandberg’s stated reason for stepping down last June, after 278 games and a 119-159 record. He was too polite to say it, but Ryno also had grown frustrated by the impossible challenge of rebuilding with youngsters while retaining a proud core of fading veterans such as Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins.
Not that the Cubs’ roster Theo Epstein inherited offered similar stature, but his scorched-earth rebuild was unimpeded by sentiment.
Sandberg is back in the Cubs’ embrace, working as a team ambassador. As much as he put into becoming a big-league skipper, it’s puzzling that he would quit after less than two years, no matter the working conditions, but Ryno always has been his own guy. He wasn’t far from the peak of his Hall of Fame playing career when he walked away from the Cubs in 1994, at 34. They welcomed him back 18 months later, but the circumstances of his departure this time make a return problematic.
A friend insists Sandberg is happy doing what he’s doing. Here’s hoping, but even at 56, Ryno belongs on the field. He was meant to wear a baseball uniform the way Fred Astaire was meant to wear a tuxedo or Dick Butkus a sturdy pair of shoulder pads.
Change creates opportunity in baseball, and Mackanin was the beneficiary of Sandberg’s exit. The Phils were 37-51 during his 88-game stint as their interim manager, and Team MacPhail thought enough of his easy rapport with players young and old to hire him for 2016. In March they tacked on another year, covering him through 2017.
So after two previous stints as an interim skipper, as well as more than 2,000 games at various minor-league and Caribbean outposts, the 64-year-old Chicago native and Brother Rice High School graduate finally left spring training with a team he could call his own.
Early results have been encouraging. The Phils brought a 26-21 record to Chicago, including a 14-10 mark in the National League East, where the Mets and Nationals presumably run things. It’s mostly the work of a pitching staff that owns seven shutouts and a 3.74 ERA that ranks sixth in the league.
“As long as we pitch well, we can be competitive,” Mackanin said.
The pitching had best be exemplary because the Phils’ hitting is another story. They’re averaging barely three runs a game, they’ve been outscored by 38 runs and they’re on pace to hit 108 home runs, playing half their games in a ballpark that welcomes them.
Meanwhile, the first two rounds of this Cubs series have resembled a JV team stepping up to play the varsity. Middle-of-the-order boppers Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo were given Friday off, but the Cubs still slugged three homers while winning 6-2. The Phils managed 10 hits, nine of them singles.
“We couldn’t string anything together,” Mackanin said. “You look at this Cubs’ lineup, there are guys top to bottom who can do damage.”
Sure enough, leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler started Saturday’s 4-1 rumble by popping a 3-1 pitch into the seats in the first, and Heyward announced his return with two screaming doubles.
But two less celebrated plays better illustrate why these aren’t your father’s Cubs.
After Odubel Herrera opened Saturday’s game with a bunt single, the Cubs sensed he might be running, to generate early offense. Kyle Hendricks kept a wary eye on the Phils’ center fielder as he took an ambitious lead, then picked him off with a quick move, a perfect throw and a snap tag.
Rizzo entered for defense in the ninth inning Friday. With a runner on first and one out, he ranged far to his right to glove Freddy Galvis’ sharp grounder and fired to second. As Addison Russell glided across the bag for the force, Hector Rondon hustled over to take the shortstop’s return throw and complete a game-ending 3-6-1 double play, as smooth a sequence as you’ll see on a ball field.
Routine excellence. You know it when you see it. It’s what separates the big boys from the also-rans.