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Joe Maddon and the Cubs stay loose while living up to the hype

Cubs manager Joe Maddon and pitcher Jake Arrieta have stayed sharp on and off the field this season. Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA -- Somewhere between Sloan Park in Arizona and Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon swapped his "Embrace the Target" T-shirt for a model with the words "Try Not to Suck" emblazoned across the front. Beyond that minor fashion statement, not much has changed around the team since the Cactus League.

Before the Cubs arrived in Philadelphia for a three-game series this week, I hadn't seen them up close and personal since spring training. The thing that struck me most in March -- beyond the seeming wealth of talent on the roster -- was the nonstop buzz and media attention surrounding the club.

It's hard to remember a team that's been subject to more scrutiny and hype than the 2016 Cubs, and they handled it well in the lead-up to Opening Day. But winning 95 games and a division title is more challenging when everyone expects it. A lot of teams have gotten tighter when they struggled and the reality of a long season took hold. The 2015 Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres and multiple recent iterations of the Washington Nationals spring to mind.

When Maddon was dreaming up wacky diversions and utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki was eliciting laughs with his karaoke act, the Cubs seemed to have a knack for keeping things in perspective in spring training. They projected the same relaxed vibe Wednesday, when the entire roster donned NBA tracksuits for the bus ride to the Philadelphia airport. I ran that observation past pitcher Kyle Hendricks after an 8-1 series-ending victory over the Phillies, and he agreed.

"It hasn't changed a bit from spring training to now," Hendricks said. "That's the atmosphere Joe creates. He's the same guy every day when he comes to the field. He knows it's a long year. We've got to get our work in -- you've got to do what you have to do.

"But you have to have fun, too. He's one of the best at creating that atmosphere for us, and we all feed off it. I think that's where it starts."

It helps that the Cubs are so good in every facet of the game. The starting rotation leads the majors with a 2.30 ERA and ranks third in innings pitched behind Toronto and San Francisco. All those deep starts have been a boon to the bullpen, which ranks seventh in baseball in ERA and is holding opponents to a .201 batting average. Could the Cubs benefit from a big July trade to add an Andrew Miller to the mix? Absolutely. They have the young talent, the resources and the incentive to make that type of move if Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer think it's time to take the plunge.

The Cubs rank third among the 30 MLB teams with 313 runs, and they're adept at run prevention, with an MLB-best 38 defensive runs saved. And the 25-man roster is extremely versatile and athletic. It's one thing when Ben Zobrist consents to moving around the field as a young player because it's his ticket to staying in the big leagues. It's something else when Kris Bryant, a former No. 2 overall draft pick and budding superstar, carries around four gloves and tells the manager he has no problems moving from third base to left field and back again, with a cameo at shortstop or first base in the middle.

Two years ago, Javier Baez's monumental contact issues gave people reason to wonder if he would ever make the adjustment to the big leagues. Baez still has work to do. But he's a 23-year-old super-athlete who has contributed at all four infield positions and played two games in left field. He looked pretty darned impressive going 4-for-4 with three RBIs Wednesday.

"These guys aren't stuck saying, 'I'm a second baseman or a shortstop or a third baseman,' or whatever," said catcher David Ross. "It's like, 'Whatever I can do to help the team and get in the lineup. That's the goal.

"Joe does a great job of communicating those things in spring training and having guys work on different things with our coaching staff. It's a group effort. Nobody feels like it's a dictatorship from the front office or the manager. It's about everybody being ready and doing the best they can wherever he puts you."

With the exception of Kyle Schwarber's season-ending knee injury, the Cubs have been relatively fortunate with their health in the season's first two months. The five starters have logged 58 straight starts without interruption, and Anthony Rizzo, Bryant, Dexter Fowler, Zobrist and Addison Russell have missed a combined 12 games all season. At some point, the organizational depth will be further tested.

They certainly seem unfazed by unwelcome plot twists. Monday night in Philly, outfielder Jorge Soler suffered a hamstring strain that forced him onto the disabled list. The Cubs could have gone the traditional route and summoned veteran Matt Murton from Triple-A Iowa as a bat off the bench. Instead they went bold and called up Albert Almora Jr., their first pick in the 2012 draft, even though you could argue Almora might be better served playing every day in the minors than sporadically in the big leagues at this stage of his development.

Maddon inserted the kid in left field for the series finale at Citizens Bank Park, and Almora threw out Odubel Herrera at the plate in the first inning and later singled for his first big-league hit. Just like that, he was part of the team.

What did it mean to Almora to get thrown into the lineup so quickly, rather than have to wait around several days for a start?

"It's awesome," Almora said. "It's a big boost in confidence, and that's the biggest thing for me -- confidence. For him to have the trust in me to go out and help this team like that, I feel blessed to be here."

Spend even a day or two around the Cubs, and it's easy to see how the veterans are a nurturing influence on the young players while being simultaneously energized by them. It's similar to the dynamic in Boston, where Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are rubbing off on David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia in such a positive way. The biggest difference is, the Cubs can pitch.

Baseball fans on Chicago's north side have enough of a pragmatic (or fatalistic) streak to know it's not going to be this easy, but the euphoria of spring has given way to something tangible and real at Wrigley. The manager gave the players their marching orders with the inscription on his favorite T-shirt, and from 1-25 on the roster, the Cubs have done their best to oblige.

They most definitely don't suck.