PITTSBURGH – As far as Cubs manager Joe Maddon is concerned, players can grouse all they want about the “spring training” vibe and substitution patterns, but it’s not going to change how he and his staff handle the team the final few days of the regular season or make him second-guess the methods.
“My answer to that is we’re 7-2 in our last nine games,” Maddon said Thursday, the day after pitcher Jake Arrieta and catcher Miguel Montero expressed irritation in postgame comments. “I don’t see any kind of real negative pattern right there.”
Make that 7-2-1 in the last 10 after another spring training-looking Cubs lineup played the Pirates to a spring training-like result – with the heavens underscoring the vibe by creating a 1-1 tie when rain stopped the game in the sixth.
Because the game will not be finished or replayed, and five innings constitute an official game length, MLB deemed it the Cubs’ first tie since May 28, 1993 (2-2 vs. Montreal). It’s the first in the majors since 2005 (Astros and Reds).
“I’ve utilized the words spring training on several occasions just to indicate the [context] regarding getting guys in and out of the game, not from the perspective of not trying to win,” Maddon said. “They all knew what was going to happen before that game began last night. There were no surprises. And there’s been no surprises.
“There’s really not a whole lot of credence to all of that as far as I’m concerned because we’ve been playing well.”
The frustration in the clubhouse has not been limited to Arrieta and Montero since the Cubs clinched the division title with 16 games to play, putting them in a unique position that has resulted in scripted bullpen schedules, manipulated rotation schedules and liberal use of days off for regulars and substitutions.
“Anything that changes your routine a little bit is a little frustrating, because this is such a routine-oriented game,” said veteran Ben Zobrist, who called the feeling “odd” and “weird” this week.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating at times,” he said, “but I get it. I understand the overall goal of these games is not the same as it’s been the last six months of the year. So we have to do the best we can to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish today, then we’ll prepare for tomorrow, tomorrow.”
The frustration was not simply the result of Wednesday night’s loss. It had been building among several of the veterans and others trying to get or stay sharp, knowing they’ll have four days off before the playoffs, some said privately.
Maddon said he plans to keep his relievers on their scripts, keep the starting pitchers on conservative pitch limits and substitute out regulars after three or four at-bats over the final three games this weekend in Cincinnati.
“In regards to feeling that competitive moment, it’s almost impossible to replicate that unless you actually are playing to get into the playoffs,” he said. “And you’re playing against a team that is not playing for anything, either. So these are all mind games you have to play with yourself in order to replicate what you want.”
Arrieta, who was trying to back up a strong performance five days earlier in his final start before the playoffs, was chapped at unexpectedly having veteran Montero replaced behind the plate Wednesday with rookie Willson Contreras in a 4-1 game after four innings.
Despite Maddon’s “no surprises” assertion, Arrieta reiterated his surprise at the catching change during his weekly radio show Thursday.
That doesn’t mean a 101-season is suddenly coming apart at the seams within the clubhouse. Players say they have no doubt they’ll be ready for next week’s playoff opener.
More than anything, it might speak to the uncharted September waters of going so long with so little on the line and “bigger baseball fish to fry” in October, as Maddon has put it.
“It’s a place that nobody usually is in,” Zobrist said. “There’s very few teams that get in this position so early and kind of run away with it. So that’s why we’re where we are. For those of us in here it’s new for all of us, including Joe, including all the staff. They have to do the best job they can to keep everyone healthy, not allow anything bad to happen, but at the same time try to keep people sharp.
“It does feel a little bit more like spring training. So we want to get away from that as quick as we can and get back to playing really competitive baseball.”
As Arrieta said through clenched teeth Wednesday night: “Whoever I face in the first round, they’re going to be in trouble.”