Now what? Cubs' back-to-back meetings produce back-to-back losses

PITTSBURGH -- First the players talked it over. Then their manager chimed in. The Chicago Cubs are pulling out all the stops to turn around their fortunes as the All-Star break fast approaches.

If the first two games after those meetings are any indication, they might have to go back to the drawing board yet again. The Cubs have lost twice to the Pittsburgh Pirates this week, by a combined score of 23-6.

"He told us to pick it up in a Joe kind of way," reliever Brad Brach said of Joe Maddon's team meeting before a 5-1 loss on Tuesday. "We all expect ourselves to be playing better baseball, and we're not. We need to realize that now, before we get too far behind the eight ball."

To be clear, Maddon has only a couple of meetings a year: one in spring training, another right before the break. So this wasn't any sort of panic move. It was scheduled. He also has a team meeting before the playoffs begin, so he has had three per year every season he has been Cubs manager. At the moment, a third meeting this year might be in jeopardy. The Cubs fell out of first place in the NL Central on Monday.

"I talked to them about what I thought we needed to get better at, but then I also offered some solutions," Maddon said post-meeting. "Sometimes you just get off-track a little bit. I thought I gave what I thought were the issues and then some solutions."

The issues are plentiful and quite obvious: The Cubs aren't playing smart baseball, making outs on the bases at an alarming rate while being sloppy in the field. They aren't talented enough to overcome those mistakes, so making fewer would help. They could use a better mental approach at the plate as well, at least with men in scoring position.

"Yeah, a lot of fundamentals and mental preparation was stressed," Brach said.

Maddon added: "I was talking about some concepts that we may have gotten away from that I want to get us back into. Really rally around the team. We've been a tightly knit group that has thrived on our method."

The group Maddon is referring to -- his players -- also felt the need to get together themselves on Monday before getting trounced 18-5 by the Pirates. It's customary to hold hitters and pitchers meetings before the start of a new series, but Cubs players decided to take it a step further and talk as a team.

"We reiterated what we had planned in spring," Brach said of the players-only meeting. "We brought back up the ideas from spring that we lost focus of. It was good to get back together after three months and basically reestablish our goals we had set in spring."

Cubs management was aware the players were getting together and viewed it as a sign that they care and want to spark some winning ways. After all, the team is 21-27 in its past 48 games. That isn't a small sample. Overall, they're 45-41, including an eye-opening 16-25 on the road.

So the doors were closed, and the players talked it over.

"We're in a rut, doing a lot of churning," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We need to get out of that. I think that conversations in the group, about how to get out of that kind of rut, is important."

The progression when these things come up with teams can go two obvious ways: Either the meetings accomplish something, or they don't. And if they don't, it creates a "now what?" feeling.

It's why you often hear the saying, "Show me a team that holds a lot of meetings, and I'll show you a losing team." Simply put, a team that holds a lot of meetings must feel like it needs a lot of meetings.

"Anytime there are too many meetings, it's not a good sign, but I think it was a perfect time to do it," Brach stated. "We kind of squandered a golden opportunity to take a big lead in the division, so I think right now it was a great time to bring up the inefficiencies and lock it down."

There's another saying about meetings: Have them before your ace pitches. You're more likely to win the game and -- real or not -- be able to point to the meeting as the difference-maker. The Cubs did the exact opposite, talking it over before rookie Adbert Alzolay got rocked on Monday.

First the players, then the manager. Who's next? Does Theo Epstein address the team, or does he get their attention by his actions? One thing is for sure: The league has caught up to the Cubs. Those rebuilding teams Chicago beat up on in 2016 and 2017 are now close to fully formed.

"These other groups [teams] are arriving at the same point," Maddon said. "We have to look for and find that other edge that's going to make the most sense to us and puts us over the top. That's the challenge for us as a group right now. How do we get over on this other group that's ascended, that had not been so good the past couple years? Now they are."

One assumes that was part of the message to his players, one Maddon didn't want to completely reveal to the public. It was the same message Epstein gave at the end of last year's collapse. It's the whole sense of urgency thing. Do the players get it yet?

"Even in 2016, we had that losing streak right before the break," veteran reliever Pedro Strop said. "It's going to happen. We just need to battle through it and come out of this slump as soon as possible. I'm not worried. It's not cool, but I'm not worried."

Using the 2016 template could be dangerous because the Cubs simply aren't as good as they were that season, but Strop is allowed to find the positives, especially considering that the negatives were stressed a lot the past couple of days behind closed doors.

"If we look around, we just passed into second place," Strop said. "That means we're not that bad."

"Not that bad" probably isn't what Cubs fans want to hear, not from a former juggernaut of a team. Can the Cubs find that mojo again? That question is being asked yet again after the failures of last season.

In any case, as another saying goes, talk is cheap. Undoubtedly, Maddon had the final word in his meeting on Tuesday, and he'll get it here as well.

"I'm committed and believe this group can be what we thought it can be," Maddon said. "That's my job. I take it very seriously. I take it to heart."