CHICAGO -- Winners of 10 out of 11 games after their four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants, the Chicago Cubs have taken their season to a new level. And the person most directly responsible for it all is their unflinching skipper, Joe Maddon.
I can’t remember a manager asserting his leadership like Maddon did this past weekend. His handprints were all over the series sweep of the Giants. He just knows how to handle things.
It began in Game 1, on Thursday, when he made a surprise trip to the mound in the fifth inning to pull veteran starting pitcher Jason Hammel. Right or wrong, no other manager who I can think of would have taken Hammel out of the game. Not in the fifth inning, and not while leading 5-2. Not on Aug. 6, at least. That's a postseason move.
Yes, Hammel had given up a home run an inning before and walked the first two in the fifth, but it didn’t cross my mind for a second that he was coming out. Normally, Hammel would have been able to "clean up his own mess," as he described it afterward. Not this day. Maddon sensed something about his pitcher and the urgency of the moment. The Cubs had taken a 5-0 lead and were on the verge of giving it back. He didn’t want one of those demoralizing losses to start the series. He said as much after the game.
"To relinquish that [lead] and lose that game is a difficult loss, particularly to this team right now," he said.
On Saturday, Maddon was asked if the situation had been different -- if the Cubs hadn’t scored and were down 2-0 with Hammel on the ropes -- would he have made the same move? He answered no. In that scenario, Hammel would have been able to keep going. Maddon felt losing a game in which they were already trailing 2-0 would not have had the same effect as losing one they were leading 5-0. It turned out to be a brilliant move, as Justin Grimm came in to retire the next three batters and the Cubs went on to win 5-4. After the five runs it scored in the first two innings, Chicago never scored again, so holding onto that 5-2 lead in the fifth inning was huge.
What came next took more guts and guile than you might think. To people not associated with the Cubs, it might have seemed easy to bench three-time All-Star Starlin Castro on Friday in the lineup shuffle when Miguel Montero returned from his thumb injury. But Maddon surprised me with such a direct approach. I assumed -- as he intimated -- that a rotation would take place. One day, Castro might sit, the next it might be Jorge Soler, and then a struggling Kris Bryant and so on and so forth. Maybe Castro would eventually sit more than play, but not right away. I said as much on television on Thursday and look foolish for doing so. I thought Chris Coghlan's ability to move around the diamond allowed for Maddon to pick and choose what rookie or struggling player would start the game on the bench.
Instead, Maddon went right to Castro, who has been struggling for close to four months and basically said "enough is enough." You have to understand the enormity of the move. Maddon didn’t bench Castro in favor of just Kyle Schwarber. He’s essentially sitting behind all four rookies (Schwarber, Bryant, Soler and Addison Russell), plus Coghlan. The manager sent a strong statement about performance mattering -- something we don’t always see in professional sports. Castro was taken aback by the news. Similar to the Hammel situation the day before, most veterans with multi-year, multimillion dollar contracts get some benefit of the doubt. Maddon could easily have instituted a rotation among position players, and no one would have questioned it. But he knows that sitting Castro was the winning move. For now and the future. Castro took a night to think about it and said all the right things about the benching. So here comes the long anticipated move: Russell takes over at shortstop, with Coghlan moving to second and Schwarber to left field.
I’ve mentioned this several times on ESPN 1000, but I saw Russell in the Arizona Fall League in 2013 when he was still an Oakland Athletics prospect and played shortstop next to Kris Bryant. He stood out. I mean he really stood out. I saw him again in spring training when he was still with the A's, when they played the Cubs. Again, he made a lasting impression. I can't remember what he did at the plate, but there was a quickness about him at shortstop that simply wowed observers.
The Fall League is where dozens of scouts watch players in a more laid-back setting. And when asking them about Bryant several times, the conversation shifted to Russell. Frankly, it didn’t register much with me until the day the Cubs traded for him. At that moment, you knew he would be the Cubs' shortstop someday. You don’t waste that kind of talent anywhere else on the field. Some say his arm isn’t strong enough, but his quickness will make up for any other shortcomings. You’ve seen how he mastered second base in a short period of time; just wait until he’s back to full speed at shortstop. He’s already made a couple of nice plays there.
But back to Maddon. Having taken delicate care of Castro’s benching, he once again showed the urgency of the moment by allowing closer Hector Rondon to come into the eighth inning for a rare 1 2/3 inning save on Friday. That’s outside the box as well. Even though it meant Rondon wasn’t available for Saturday's game, it sent that not-so-subtle message: This isn’t April, or even June or July. This is a pennant race and the Cubs aren’t giving this game up.
Maddon continued his mastery of the moment on Saturday, when he used three pitchers in the ninth inning -- James Russell, Jason Motte and Grimm -- not allowing any of them to get too close to losing the game. In fact, he said he held Grimm back just for the very moment that occurred, when he entered with the tying run on base to record the final out. He got a ground ball, and just like that, the Cubs were one win away from a shocking sweep of the defending champs.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge Grimm's performance during the series. How many pitchers enter a game in the fifth inning -- with men on base, mind you -- and get the win as he did on Thursday, and then do the same two days later -- except now it’s the ninth inning and he’s trying to save the game? Grimm was up to the task in both instances.
With Jake Arrieta pitching Sunday, Maddon could be fairly confident he wouldn’t need to stretch his bullpen in the series finale. Arrieta came through, going 7 2/3 innings without giving up a run.
Finally, Maddon's handling of his four rookies has been sparkling. He's imploring them not to think about what’s at stake and just play baseball. Of course, it’s easier said than done, especially with as rabid a fan base as the Cubs have. The beauty of Maddon isn’t in the message he delivers; it’s how he delivers it that separates him. What manager doesn’t tell his team to relax, hustle and just play? But how you deliver can make all the difference in the world. Maddon makes that difference.
Fortunately, the bomb scare at Wrigley Field that ended the weekend was just that, a scare. Now the Wrigleyville faithful can get back to celebrating a signature series sweep with a special nod to their manager. He earned it. If the Cubs actually make the postseason employing four rookies -- albeit very talented ones -- the National League manager of the year will reside in Chicago.
And Joe Maddon should win it in a landslide.