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Joe Maddon effect is helping the Cubs pile up wins

BY DAN McGRATH – For the Sun-Times

Joel the TV guy likes to talk/argue baseball, and he knows his stuff, save for an occasional blind spot regarding his White Sox.

I hope he was at U.S. Cellular Field on Sunday. He’d have seen Chris Sale at his 26-year-old best with seven innings of masterpiece pitching as the Sox salvaged a 3-3 split of the City Series by beating the Cubs 3-1.

Sale threw 116 diabolically nasty pitches in blistering heat, matching his career high with 15 strikeouts while giving up one hit, a ground-ball single to Dexter Fowler leading off the sixth inning.

“Not too many times has he been better,” Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “He was darn near  unhittable.”

Sale not only ended the Cubs’ nine-game winning streak, he may well have saved the Sox’s season.

Joel, no doubt, is grateful.

He and I were discussing Joe Maddon the other night, and I suggested he was the ideal manager for the Cubs at this stage of their development.

“How much difference does a manager actually make?” Joel demanded.

Tough to quantify. You could start with 17 wins for Maddon; the Cubs are 67-49 after 116 games this season, whereas they were 50-66 at this juncture under Ricky Renteria in 2014.

But they were chippin’ away.

Or you could give Maddon 21 wins, the difference between his first-season record after 116 games and Dale Sveum’s (46-70) at the same stage in 2012.

Of course, neither Renteria nor Sveum had Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell or Jon Lester on his roster—remember Nate Schierholtz batting clean-up?—and Jorge Soler, Jake Arrieta and even Anthony Rizzo were still sorting things out as major leaguers. The talent upgrade the Cubs have managed since Theo Epstein’s regime took over baseball ops in 2011 is borderline historic.

“You can win with young players … it depends on the type of young players you have,” Ventura said. “The Cubs have some good talent. It’s not like they got these guys out of the 30th round.”

If the top-to-bottom rebuild is ahead of schedule, the Maddon Effect can’t be overlooked as a factor. The 61-year-old Spencer Tracy lookalike has been a charismatic, ebullient presence from the day he arrived in Chicago, gaining Ordinary Joe acceptance from the press corps by buying a round of drinks at his introductory news conference.

Whereas many coaches and managers regard media interaction as an irritating infringement on their time, Maddon doesn’t mind the give-and-take with reporters, responding to questions with detailed, reasoned answers that reflect how deeply he thinks the game.

Who benches his starting shortstop, a six-year veteran and three-time All-Star, then reinstates him as a second baseman seven games into a nine-game winning streak? Who removes a pitcher from back-to-back starts, each time with a lead and plenty left in the tank, because he doesn’t like the way he’s trending? Who bats his fourth outfielder third in the order, gets a two-homer game from him, then smiles knowingly when it’s pointed out the Cubs are 12-0 in games with said outfielder in the No. 3 hole?

It’s not Maddon’s first rodeo. He’s not afraid to be himself and try things. Certain moves could disrupt the tranquility of a less settled clubhouse, but not Maddon’s. Clearly the Cubs have responded to him. They’ve been at their best in July and August, playing with high-level effort and concentration through baseball’s spirit-draining dog days.

“Joe’s got a fun personality, he’s a great communicator, and he believes in his guys—if you’re here, you’re going to help us win,” said catcher David Ross, who has played for 10 other managers over 15 big league seasons.

“He’s honest—he tells you what’s going on, and players appreciate that,” Ross said. “But a winning team is a group effort. Everybody contributes.”

That’s Maddon’s take as well. He is resolute in redirecting credit toward his players.

“I couldn’t be more impressed with the effort, the intensity, the want-to … we’re showing up ready to play baseball—playoff-caliber baseball,” Maddon said. “We’re doing all the things you need to do to win at this time of year. You come to the park, you expect to win somehow, some way. You’ve got to ride that wave as long as possible.”

Even if Chris Sale has other ideas.

“You’re not going to win ‘em all. We played well, we just ran into an outstanding pitcher,”

Maddon said. “The atmosphere was great all weekend. These moments will do us good come September and eventually into October.”