MIAMI -- Before Thursday's game against the Miami Marlins, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon admitted it would be a mistake to "anticipate scoring a ton of runs" without some main pieces from his championship team of a year ago. Ben Zobrist (wrist), Jason Heyward (hand) and Kyle Schwarber (minors) aren't contributing for various reasons, meaning the onus was on a group of very young and inexperienced hitters.
"It's a bad assumption on my part [to think high scoring], so you probably have to take more chances defensively," Maddon said of a potential low-scoring game.
Maddon also stressed the need to lean on his veteran pitching staff -- and that's what he focused on after an 11-1 blowout win over the Marlins as Jake Arrieta was magnificent over seven innings. As for that unexpected run scoring? Youth was served as eight hitters from ages 22 through 27 broke out their lumber.
"We really had good at-bats," Maddon said. "Addison [Russell] looks really comfortable. [Willson] Contreras, Russell, [Ian] Happ have kind of been ascending as of late."
The latter two players produced four-hit games as the Cubs had 16 hits overall -- with none coming from Heyward, Zobrist or Schwarber, of course. The craziness of the Cubs' 2017 season keeps finding its twists and turns, the latest of which involves World Series hero Schwarber being sent to the minors. Injuries are starting to pile up, as well, and the Cubs just began the toughest road trip of the season. Yet they are still squarely in the playoff race in the National League Central.
It's a lot like 2015 when Maddon took a young team to the brink of the Fall Classic when no one expected it. At this moment he's dealing with just as much youth -- and inexperience -- but with much higher expectations. Happ is an example of a player maturing in front of our eyes. Four hits and his first career stolen base is a pretty good night, and though his batting average (.246) is rising, that's not his focus.
"It's not something I think about," Happ said. "It's not something that's even in my mind. I'm just up there trying to have good, quality at-bats."
Spoken like a true veteran, which he kind of is right now when you consider the rest of the outfield. Albert Almora Jr. was in center on Thursday, but he's a part-time player, while Mark Zagunis was making his major league debut in right field. Happ for Schwarber, Zagunis for Heyward. Where has 2016 gone?
"I did focus on that before the game," Maddon said of the youth on the team. "It's a really young group.
"It's young [and] eager. It's a great group."
And it's the group the Cubs will have to rely on during a semi-critical part of the schedule. It's unlikely they would fall completely out of the race, but even trailing the first-place Brewers by three or four games can cause a lot of stress. The Cubs need to keep up to have a shot at getting past Milwaukee once all their pieces are back. But that time may not be now, not with 10 more games to come on a tough road trip. Thursday was a great start as the team quickly put the Schwarber drama behind it and went to work on Marlins starter Jeff Locke. He never made it to the fifth.
"We're seeing a nice trend of at-bats," Maddon said. "When these guys come back, [the lineup] gets longer and better."
In the meantime, Maddon might be able to lean on his pitching as the Cubs needed only two runs -- not 11 -- to win on Thursday. Arrieta may not the same pitcher he was in winning the Cy Young in 2015, but he can still toss a good game when things play in his favor. Arrieta got a buzz cut as the team headed for Miami to cut down on some sweat -- that was a problem last start -- while staking him to a lead didn't hurt either. He left after seven innings up 8-1 as Day 1 without Schwarber and Heyward was pretty good.
"It's a matter of building off a night like tonight," Arrieta said.
Maddon stressed the same. It's just one game, but it's one fewer on the road trip and one more in the victory column. The Cubs needed it.