Beware shouting fire (the manager) in a crowded playoff race, especially if you’re the Cubs

“It’s just crazy. It’s unfounded,” Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks said of swift and aggressive calls to fire manager Joe Maddon — in particular after back-to-back ninth-inning losses. “It looks a lot easier on the couch. ... We’re behind him all the way and everything he does for us. And sometimes there’s nothing he can do. It’s up to us.”

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Maddon before a recent game.

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH – Whatever the front office’s plans are with lame-duck manager Joe Maddon in the next seven weeks or so, he couldn’t get so much as a dreaded vote of confidence from his general manager on Friday.

Even before the Cubs blew another ninth-inning lead in a walk-off loss, this time 3-2 on Kevin Newman’s bases-loaded single with two out in the bottom of the ninth in the opener of a three-game series against the Pirates.

Asked about the job performance of arguably the most successful manager in Cubs history during a 2019 season of injuries, depth problems and off-field distractions, GM Jed Hoyer conspicuously talked around the question without answering it.

“I think one of Joe’s best strengths is that he shows up every day, and he’s the same guy,” Hoyer said. “We had a pretty awful loss [Thursday], and he’s confident, he’s got a smile on his face,” Hoyer added. “I think it’s genuine.

“That kind of leadership I think – sometimes people want to see things thrown or things overturned. And I think that’s something that he does exceptionally well.”

That skill might be tested more than it has since Maddon took over before the 2015 season when they get to the park for a day game Saturday.

“It’s very frustrating, but we can’t let it get to us,” Maddon said. “We’ve got to come out and play our game tomorrow.”

So about that job performance, and upper management’s intent to either fire him or extend his original five-year contract?

“We talked at the beginning of the year how it’s not going to be a topic of discussion, and it’s something we’ll talk about at the end of the season,” Hoyer said. “I would triple down on that now with 41 games left.

“It’s not a topic our players should be answering questions; it’s not a topic that should be distracting our coaching staff or Joe.”

Conspicuously left out of that high-minded, high-road talk is that the lone cause of any questions posed to players, coaches or Maddon was the decision by Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein to let Maddon’s contract status hang in the wind of the six-month fortunes of a team seeking a fifth consecutive playoff berth.

“He puts us in the best position to succeed more times than not,” said starter Kyle Hendricks, who allowed one run on three hits in seven efficient innings Friday. “It’s always up to us at the end of the day. We’re behind him all the way and everything he does for us. And sometimes there’s nothing he can do. It’s up to us.”

That certainly seemed the case in the ninth in Pittsburgh when after using left-hander Kyle Ryan in lefty matchup spots, Maddon went to just activated veteran Brandon Kintzler (2.33 ERA entering) to get the final two outs with a man at first.

After quickly getting the second out, Kintzler issued one intentional walk and two unintentional walks to tie the game, and Newman followed with a single up the middle for the winner.

Fire Maddon? Twitter seemed unanimous afterward.

“It’s just crazy. It’s unfounded,” Hendricks said. “It looks a lot easier on the couch. … [a managing decision] is never 100 percent slam dunk. You’ve just got to play the odds and trust your guys can make the pitches. That’s not up to him.”

It’s an open secret that Maddon’s style and approach doesn’t always fit the front office’s vision.

But he also has had success for more than 15 years managing diverse personalities of all ages with the Rays and Cubs. It has included an average of 97 wins in four seasons with the Cubs and winning six of nine playoff rounds in that span.

“The bottom line is our entire focus right now is how to get where we need to go and how to fix these challenges that we’ve had,” said Hoyer, referring to some specific breakdowns but mostly a road record (23-39) among the worst in the majors – including six losses in the last seven games.

“We’re not going to talk about it, and it’s not how we’re spending our days,” Hoyer said of Maddon’s status. “It’s not how we’re spending our team. We’re trying to figure out how to fix this.”

Maddon spoke last weekend in Cincinnati about his status with the Cubs and his belief “that we’ll be together for a couple more years at least.”

He said then that he believes the decision by Epstein and Hoyer will have “nothing to do with wins and losses. If that was the case, I would have signed a contract at the end of last season.”

Hoyer dismissed, as Epstein did earlier in the week, a report the front office was angry at Maddon’s comments, saying, “the idea that Theo and I were in any way upset about what he said was just a made-up story.”

Besides, Maddon didn’t whiff so big on free agent pitching after the 2017 season that the payroll was bloated and all but frozen when improvements were needed a year later.

The manager isn’t the reason the Cubs have had an active closer on the roster for only one of the last eight months of baseball – and he didn’t walk the tying run home in the ninth after finally having a healthy setup man in Brandon Kintzler (a former All-Star closer) to use with the lead.

“We’re unbelievably fortunate to be in this position we’re in right now,” Hoyer said. “We should look at this as an amazing opportunity to have a 41-game sprint to win when the first 121 games of performance don’t really deserve that fate.”

Make it 40 games. And make that tie for the division lead a one-game deficit after the Cardinals beat the Reds Friday.

In fact, the Phillies won again on the heels of their sweep of the Cubs this week, forging a tie for the second wild-card spot.

“Could be a lot better and could be a lot worse,” Kris Bryant said. “We’re kind of in that middle. Thankfully, nobody’s running away with it. We’ve got that on our side.”

Not that anything that happened during that 24-hour stretch from Thursday’s ninth inning through Friday’s made much sense to Bryant – who hadn’t experienced back-to-back crushers like that in almost five years in the majors.

“I don’t even remember it in my whole baseball playing career,” he said. “I don’t know who to respond to it. It’s new to me. It’s new to most of us. You’ve just got to keep playing.

“When the sun comes up, it’s a new day, a new game.”

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