PITTSBURGH – Beating Gerrit Cole in last year’s National League wild-card game became a landmark victory for The Plan. A young Cubs lineup didn’t panic or play tight and you have to wonder what the Pittsburgh Pirates are thinking right now. Because this looks like a vastly superior version of the team that won 97 games and silenced the blackout crowd at PNC Park.
The Cubs didn’t even need a superhuman effort from Jake Arrieta, who walked the first two Pirates he faced on Tuesday night before throwing seven scoreless innings and cruising to a 7-1 victory in front of a half-empty stadium.
While the Cubs (19-6) have used a pitching-and-defense formula to create the best record in baseball – and what they hope will be a better blueprint for October – this offense still isn’t close to clicking on all cylinders yet.
Not that Pittsburgh’s Jonathon Niese – who couldn’t crack the playoff rotation for the New York Mets last year – would notice after giving up six runs, nine hits and five walks across five innings in a drama-free game that didn’t create more fireworks in a rivalry that’s heating up.
But the difference is dramatic enough that Cubs manager Joe Maddon keeps having flashbacks to his time with the Tampa Bay Rays and trying to take down the superpowers in Boston and New York.
“Right now, you’re seeing a group of guys playing the game today who have one thought – and that is to wear this pitcher down collectively,” Maddon said. “You’ve seen it in the past – I saw it in the early 2000s with the Red Sox and the Yankees in the American League East – they would definitely wear you down. They would get in your ‘pen, and then they'd bludgeon you at that point.”
Getting into the bullpen doesn’t exactly mean batting practice in an age of specialization, information overload and multiple options approaching triple-digit velocity. But this is a snapshot of the Cubs entering Tuesday: Ranked second in the majors in runs scored (146) and on-base percentage (.361) while leading everyone in walks (129) and dropping to 24th in strikeouts (188).
Even with Kyle Schwarber recovering from knee surgery, Miguel Montero resting his back on the disabled list and Jason Heyward (zero homers, .573 OPS) getting treatment for a sore wrist.
“We want to hit strikes,” said catcher David Ross, who won a World Series ring with the 2013 Red Sox. “We’re not out there taking pitches (just to take them). Guys are looking for their pitch.
“I see maturity in the approach from a young, talented group, which is completely different than Boston, which was more of an established veteran group that had been around the block. (But) I’m seeing that kind of approach with this group.”
Among all qualified NL hitters, five Cubs ranked between 14th and 50th in terms of pitches seen per plate appearance: Dexter Fowler (4.20); Addison Russell (4.12); Heyward (3.98); Anthony Rizzo (3.96); and Ben Zobrist (3.85).
“A lot of times when you see a positive jump in moments like that, it’s probably because of new personnel,” Maddon said. “I’ve always talked about: If you want walks, buy walks. If you want less strikeouts, buy less strikeouts.
“I also think about the maturity. Addison is a classic example of a guy that’s really matured in regards to not expanding the strike zone. Even ‘Javy’ (Javier Baez) has definitely shown a different attitude at the plate. For the most part, (Jorge) Soler is not chasing like he did for a period of time last year. So it’s the maturation of the hitter plus the acquisitions definitely help.
“You talk philosophy or theory with groups and everybody listens. But do they really hear what you’re saying?
“You have to get a buy-in from everybody. (And) these guys all believe that’s the right way to do things."
That’s becoming The Cubs Way.