CHICAGO -- In true Joe Maddon style, the Chicago Cubs’ regular season ended with their World Series-winning manager playing mad scientist.
But this wasn’t Maddon's usual lineup tinkering.
With a deep and relatively healthy team, he was trying out his options for the postseason, beginning with 38-year-old pitcher John Lackey making his first regular-season relief appearance since 2004.
“Give him a test out of the bullpen,” Maddon said after a 3-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday. “See what it looked like, that kind of thing. I thought he had a really good slider, and his velocity was normal.”
Lackey gave up a run in his only inning of work, but he looked OK and apparently came out of it all right -- though he waved off reporters seeking his thoughts on the subject.
That left Maddon to explain it will be an “option” come next weekend when the Cubs play the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series. Lackey would fit in as a long reliever with the possibility of seeing important action considering starter Jake Arrieta is nursing a hamstring injury.
“We also have [Mike] Montgomery,” Maddon said. “Would have two [long-relief] guys going on there. Depends on the team on the other side. It’s a consideration.”
Lackey last pitched in relief during the 2013 World Series for the Boston Red Sox, throwing a clean eighth inning in Game 4. He then started Game 6 and picked up the win in the series-clinching victory. He has put himself in a position to help the Cubs and add to his October résumé after going 7-2 with a 3.68 ERA in the second half.
“It’s an option,” Maddon repeated.
Also an option, apparently, is seeing Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward in center field as Maddon moved his outfielders around often on Sunday. Ben Zobrist switched from left field to right field on several occasions in the game, giving the Cubs' manager even more to think about. Then, to add to the madness, Albert Almora Jr., who typically plays against left-handed pitching, hit a ninth-inning home run off righty Raisel Iglesias. It was just the fifth home run Iglesias has given up in 276 at-bats. Almora, known as a defensive wiz in center, has made huge strides in the second half against right-handed pitching.
“It’s getting better, but that doesn’t mean anything in a sense,” Maddon said. “It’s about the righties we think he’s good against. I’m sure the people that want to see him play against righties are very happy he hit a home run.”
That may not be a ringing endorsement for Almora to start against Washington's Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, but at the least it’s giving the manager a moment of pause. In fact, Maddon is likely to have many of those moments this week as he attempts to fill out a Game 1 lineup for a team that finished the season with the NL’s best second-half record. The strong surge after the break meant a lot of stellar individual performances.
“Even as you look things up, and even as you’re interested in data, it still comes back to not forgetting the heartbeat,” Maddon stated before Sunday’s game. “I don’t want numbers to overemphasize the person.”
That would seem to be a vote for Schwarber, who was considered the heart and soul of the Cubs' last postseason, when he returned from a knee injury to help them win the World Series. He’s also the all-time postseason home run leader in franchise history. Sometimes you have to remember these are all good problems to have as the Cubs' decision-makers will meet Wednesday morning.
“I always think of Colin Powell in regards to advising the president,” Maddon stated. “You give your best advice and strongest loyalty. You arrive at a conclusion then everyone should support it.”
Once those decisions are made, the Cubs hope their experience of winning the World Series last year will help them to another title. After sleepwalking through the first half of this season, they ran roughshod over the National League, taking home their second consecutive division title behind a 49-25 finish.
“Teams admit years later they had a World Series hangover,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “We came together when we had to.
“We’ve been there. We’ve been up games, down games, up in a series, down in a series. We’re as battle-tested as you can get, but it’s all about if the bounce will go your way or you get that big hit or make that big pitch.”
The baseball world might feel like the Cubs are the underdogs, but it’s not a concern to them. They just want to keep playing the way they are, which is exactly what Maddon plans to tell his team in a short meeting on Tuesday before they start preparing to defend their crown.
“Underdogs or overdogs, I don’t listen to that crap,” Maddon said with a smile. “The thing that feels different [than last year] is we know how to do this. ... There’s nothing I can say that’s going to be stirring or motivational ... that’s going to change their minds about anything. I just want our guys to go out and continue doing what they’ve been doing since the All-Star break, no different.
“I have so much faith in our guys to just go play.”