MORRISSEY: Bring on the Dodgers, Joe Maddon says, because he’s Joe
Whatever you think of Joe Maddon as a manager — whether you’re pro-Joe or oh, no, Joe! — you have to agree that the man is always thinking.
He’s thinking of ways to motivate his players and inject life into a sluggish engine. The rest of us, unburdened by such deep thoughts, are usually thinking along the lines of, “I’m torn: Do I want a brat or a cheeseburger for lunch tomorrow?’’
Saturday arrived warm and sunny at Wrigley Field, and when Maddon showed up for his daily get-together with media members, it was apparent his thinking cap had already put in for overtime. He had a message for the players, the fans and the rest of baseball: The Cubs know what to do when the postseason is in sight.
“Two years in a row, we’ve kind of gone deeply [in the playoffs],’’ he said. “I think all of that matters.’’
Also, how about those Dodgers, Joe? Pretty good team, huh?
“It’s just incredibly great what they’ve done,’’ he said. “Give them credit for it. But am I intimidated by that? No. I would so look forward to playing them in the playoffs. That would be awesome.’’
All of this might strike some of you as the epitome of pretentiousness. The Cubs, a daily mystery this season and currently clinging to first place in the weak National League Central, are going to rely on the muscle memory of the previous two years for their playoff push? And bring on the Dodgers, who are 53 games over .500?
It’s actually not a bad play. If the baseball portion of things isn’t working, might as well try bravado.
But more than that, Maddon is hoping for the Cubs to revert to being the good Cubs, the Cubs of 2015 and 2016, the Cubs who can beat anybody. You can’t blame him for that. The Cubs he envisions haven’t been around much this season. Maybe they’ll show up now. But “maybe’’ isn’t what you expect from the defending World Series champs in August.
There are all sorts of reasons why the Cubs haven’t been as successful this season as they figured to be. Their defense hasn’t been nearly as good as it was last season, as Maddon pointed out Saturday. Several hitters have had down years. Injuries have played a role in the team’s struggles.
But can anyone point out why the Cubs are going to be good the rest of the season? Hard evidence that would point to an impending surge? I’m not saying it’s impossible. I know it’s in there, and it could come out. I’m just wondering why now, suddenly, the Cubs are going to discover what has been missing almost the entire season.
There are 40 games left. The team is without shortstop Addison Russell (foot injury), catcher Willson Contreras (hamstring strain) and Jon Lester (shoulder fatigue). Even when (if?) the three do return, it’s hard to argue that the Cubs, finally whole, will go on a tear. Remember, those players were healthy when the team was doing its up-and-down act.
Kyle Schwarber’s second-half mini-renaissance hasn’t made much of a difference in the Cubs’ fortunes. Same with Kris Bryant’s hot streak. So, where does the enthusiasm for a playoff run originate? If you saw the Blue Jays giving the home team all it could handle Saturday in a 4-3 Cubs victory, you’d be hard-pressed to deliver a reason.
John Lackey’s 5-0 combined record in July and August so far? Sorry, no. Hard to look to a 38-year-old pitcher for inspiration. Jake Arrieta’s second-half resurgence? OK, you can work with that. Javy Baez’ defensive wizardry, on display again Saturday? Sure, that helps.
But the biggest factor anyone has been able to advance in the reason-for-hope department is the Cubs’ squishy schedule, which should, in theory, allow them to put together a string of victories. But does that translate once a team gets to the playoffs? Is momentum all that matters or does the nutritional value of regular-season victories matter in the postseason?
I think the regular season counts for something. But maybe it’s a matter of who can stagger to the regular-season finish line the least beaten up physically and worn down mentally. Again, hard to believe we’re talking “maybes’’ with this team as the season winds down.
The Cubs have been searching for something. Now the message is, Get us to the playoffs and then look out. It’s the “look out’’ portion that intrigues me. I know of one franchise that has been capable of flipping a switch in the postseason. That’s the Blackhawks, who have won three Stanley Cups under Joel Quenneville because they’ve been able to find something extra in the playoffs.
“I don’t want us to be switch-flippers,’’ Maddon said. “I believe in a dimmer switch, and I only believe in utilizing that in the offseason. I don’t like on and off switches at all. I’ve often warned myself of that because the moment you turn that sucker off, man, it’s hard to put it back on.
“We’ve got to start winning series on a consistent basis. That would be the best method, the most simple method to explain to the guys.’’
He wants the switch flipped now, not in the playoffs after eking out a division title. He’s right: The Cubs know how to win, having done it in the past. But remembering how you used to win isn’t the same thing as winning.