March to NL Central crown just might be Joe Maddon's best work as Cubs manager

Cubs skipper Joe Maddon has his club on the cusp of returning to the postseason to defend last year's World Series title. Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports

ST. LOUIS -- How did Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon do at least one thing San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy wasn’t able to accomplish in three tries? Something Kansas City Royals skipper Ned Yost and Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell also couldn't do?

All three won at least one World Series in recent years, but none returned to the playoffs the next season. Maddon’s Cubs are on the verge of doing just that despite losing to the St. Louis Cardinals 8-7 on Tuesday night. Their magic number to clinch the NL Central remains one.

“If I thought I learned anything from the two previous times, it’s that it’s tiring,” Maddon said before Tuesday’s game. “It takes a part of you away from you.”

Maddon won a ring as a bench coach with the Los Angeles Angels in 2002, then went to the World Series in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Rays. His worldview has developed over time, and it isn’t hard to understand: Rest trumps all, especially after winning a championship. After all, the Cubs were playing baseball in November.

“What I thought I learned was really be patient and really emphasize not pushing too hard too quickly,” Maddon said. “The two other times I’ve been involved in that, wow, you definitely burn out. You run out of gas and have no chance.”

Maddon navigated the first half of this season in fantastic fashion. The moment he realized his team wasn’t ready to push hard -- while injuries piled up on him -- he did the only thing possible: nothing. He rotated his players in and out while using the good fortune of the division the Cubs were in to simply survive. No team ran away and hid. Maddon pointed toward the second half, in which he thought his players would be healthier and have their legs underneath them.

“The hangover effect is real, if you look at what teams have done,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but I think there is always an opportunity to focus and elevate the caliber of play at a really important time. Our guys have absolutely done that.”

They elevated exactly when Maddon asked them to. He didn’t call a team meeting but addressed it individually, and the urgency became obvious. The Cubs stormed out of the second half, winning their first six games, all on the road. Once again, the tactics that Maddon has honed over the years worked.

“He’s very positive,” Epstein said. “Manages with the big picture in mind. Look at what we’ve done in the second halves under him. He’s done a great job.”

Maddon added: “I’m pleased in the sense that what I’ve always believed, I carried here and haven’t backed down regarding how to work with a baseball team, how to run a game, how to develop young players. All that stuff, nothing has changed. If you had seen me in previous years, nothing has changed. It’s nice to see your methods are validated.”

In his opening news conference in 2014 at a bar near Wrigley Field, Maddon was asked if he would bring his unconventional ways to a big market. He never hesitated: Of course he would. He figured his style would work anywhere -- and it has. Asked to assess himself, he wasn’t about to go on a long diatribe.

“I’ll concede to one thing,” Maddon said. “These last three years, overall, have validated my teaching principles in this game and how to go about it.”

The evidence is in the results. Nine of Maddon's past 10 seasons have been winning ones, compiled in two different markets. When the Cubs clinch this year, it’ll be Maddon's seventh playoff appearance in 10 seasons.

Meetings aren’t the answer. Creating the right environment is. And Maddon did it again in 2017.

“I’m pleased how our guys have responded to the method,” he said with a smile.