CHICAGO – Perhaps the most awkward week of the season begins for the Chicago Cubs: They'll have nothing to play for in their final seven games on the road, though they still want to maintain the sharpness needed for what comes next.
Maybe this is one reason manager Joe Maddon instituted a second spring training for his team after they clinched an early playoff berth, as there’s also little to play for in the last week of March but there’s also plenty to prepare for. In terms of this week and especially the end of next week, when the postseason begins, Maddon is preaching one thing.
“Beat up the day,” he said on Sunday. “You have to beat up that day somehow.”
While Cubs fans are looking forward to Game 1 of the postseason, the manager is keeping things as normal as possible. Winning a day at a time has brought his team to the position they’re in. Changing anything now is the last thing on his mind.
“I don’t get caught up in the macro of the whole thing,” Maddon said. “We cannot go about our business from inside in that manner. It will definitely have a bad ending if you do. That’s why I constantly preach the day.”
In other words, the last thing Maddon wants is his team thinking about the weight of the last 108 years while they wait for the playoffs begin. He won’t have them showing up extra early in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, just as he wouldn’t if they were still fighting for a playoff spot. And you can bet the work they put in this week will be just enough to stay sharp, no more, no less. Maddon has talked often of wanting his players to play baseball in October the same as they would in June or even March.
“The enemy of good is great,” Maddon said. “Just be good at what we’re doing.”
Baseball is about the only sport where trying harder – or even working harder – can be a detriment. Maddon believes less is more, even in the postseason. Of course, video work on the opposition must be done, but the point is to do the same as you would in the regular season. Don’t try to get cute.
“We’re not going to add anything,” Maddon said. “As we move forward you’re going to hear the same message in the postseason that you’ve heard during the season: It’s about today.”
The only thing the Cubs did do differently is adjust their starting rotation, setting up Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks for Games 1 and 2. They’ll pitch Saturday and Sunday in Cincinnati, giving each of them five days off before their playoff starts. It also gives Jake Arrieta a much longer break if he’s the Game 3 pitcher, same with John Lackey (or Jason Hammel) if needed for Game 4. These are good problems to have.
“You’re trying to keep this competitive edge by keeping us sharp,” Maddon explained of the week to come. “All this awkwardly good stuff.”
Who knows if what Maddon and the Cubs have tried since they clinched will work. It’s not often a team has two weeks to kill, but there’s no denying pitchers' arms should be rested, even if it’s possible some bats are rusty or in need of some high-leverage situations to bring out the adrenaline. The Cubs haven’t had many of those in a long time.
“It’s been long and fast and furious,” Maddon said of the season. “We’ve had ourselves a nice year. There’s still work left to be done.”