MILWAUKEE – Joe Maddon rarely criticizes his players in public and almost always spins in a positive direction, especially after brutal losses, elevating manager-speak with his verbal flourishes and attention-loving personality.
That hopeful, non-confrontational style made it so interesting to hear how Maddon responded late Saturday night at the top of his postgame media session at Miller Park. Jason Heyward had just crushed a dramatic 11th-inning home run against the Milwaukee Brewers – and on his own Maddon immediately pointed out how the Cubs struck out 17 times twice within a week and somehow won both games.
Maddon doubled down on Sunday morning, sending a not-so-subtle message to Javier Baez and the other young hitters, knowing that the Brewers in July is nothing like the possibility of facing Max Scherzer twice in a five-game playoff series against the Washington Nationals.
“I was upset,” Maddon said. “We can’t expect to win the World Series again this year and have those kind of at-bats. We can’t. That’s a bad process. It’s a bad method.”
Message received? A starting lineup that didn’t feature Baez, Kyle Schwarber or Ian Happ responded during a sharp 4-2 win where the Cubs strung together four straight two-out hits off Brewers starter Zach Davies in a two-run sixth inning and later got homers from Victor Caratini (417 feet to the batter’s eye) and Kris Bryant (off the left-field foul pole).
Coincidence? The day after Baez went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts, Maddon didn’t rearrange his infield for his best defender and started a backup rookie catcher at first base while Anthony Rizzo rested a sore upper back.
Maddon said he wanted better outfield defense (Albert Almora Jr.) for starting pitcher John Lackey. Maddon said he would ride a hot hand with a professional hitter (Jon Jay) and kept day-game-after-night-game planning in mind.
“I know it’s just one game,” Maddon said, “but it’s happened a couple times recently, and I just want us to get away from that method right now. It starts with the coaches. It filters into the players. We’ve been nurturing this mindset. The second half’s been good. I don’t want us to fall backward.
“That’s my biggest concern. I thought we were making great strides in regard to opposite-field, situational hitting, moving the baseball, putting pressure on the defense. When you get to the latter part of the year, when you get to the playoffs, you’re facing good pitching all the time. And you got to go out there and be prepared for that.
“You got to force pitchers to get us out in the strike zone and not outside of the strike zone. That, to me, is the championship-caliber offensive mentality.”
Imagine the Los Angeles Dodgers adding Yu Darvish before the July 31 trade deadline and pairing him with a healthy Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill’s curveball and an array of bullpen options in front of lights-out closer Kenley Jansen.
Maddon insisted the message wasn’t directed at Baez, who showed so much growth during last year’s playoffs, when he became the National League Championship Series co-MVP as the Cubs stormed back to eliminate the Dodgers.
“It’s directed at the whole team,” Maddon said. “Again, we need to force the other pitchers to get us out in the strike zone and not be so amenable.
“It’s a contagious method both ways. And I don’t want to see us back into that trap of giving away easy outs. I don’t want that. I want us to be tough outs. I want us to see pitches, use the whole field, et cetera, et cetera, so the message is for everybody.”
Baez is still young (24) and extremely productive as an elite defender with 13 homers and a .767 OPS. The Cubs understand his swing and personality will lead to boom-and-bust periods. This is someone with untapped potential – who has already accumulated more than 2,500 at-bats in pro ball and played parts of four seasons in the big leagues.
“Listen, he’s been there before,” Maddon said, “and then he hits the ball in the upper deck, like the other day. I just know he’s got so much ability in right-center also, and I want him to utilize that.
“The same with Happ – you’ve seen the ball go to left-center a lot hard. I just want us to continue to nurture utilizing the whole field, making the pitcher get us out within the strike zone and not expanding so much.”
Where Happ made his big-league debut in the middle of May – and Schwarber got demoted to Triple-A Iowa this summer – Baez has been in the Cubs organization since 2011.
Maddon can write off last week’s 0-for-5 with five strikeouts against the White Sox as Javi Being Javi. But the manager also wasn’t all that impressed with that ball Baez launched on Friday night off ex-White Sox reliever Anthony Swarzak.
“Pitchers throw homers more than hitters hit ‘em,” Maddon said. “My point is, you can do that once in a while if the pitcher makes a mistake. But for the most part, major-league pitchers are able to throw the ball where they want to.
“And if you’re constantly just trying to do one thing – and that would be on the pull side – you’re really playing into their hands or their trap. And more often than not, they’re going to make the pitch that you can’t do that with.
“The more you do that, the less you’re going to see your happy pitch.”