Here are the top Chicago sports stories from Monday:
“There’s nothing I can really say to them that would make a difference right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said inside Wrigley Field’s underground interview room on Sept. 10, answering a broad postgame question about team meetings at the end of a lost weekend where the Milwaukee Brewers outscored the defending World Series champs 20-3.
“They just need to see consistency from me,” Maddon said after the division lead had shrunk to two games over the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. “They just need to see me do what I always do. I’m having conversations with all of them daily. It’s more one-on-one for me, as opposed to group. One-on-one therapy as opposed to group therapy.”
Maddon chuckled at that one-liner – and he should have the last laugh on this Cubs season. Within one week – basically the time it took for the entire Bears season/Mike Glennon experiment to crater – the Cubs went from being on the ropes to landing a knockout punch against the Cardinals and doubling their lead over the Brewers in the National League Central.
What appeared to be weaknesses while this team couldn’t get rid of a World Series hangover – a laissez-faire attitude in the clubhouse, no real sense of urgency, the short attention span, too many off-the-field distractions – can be seen as strengths now that the Cubs are a season-high 17 games over .500 after sweeping the Cardinals out of Wrigleyville.
It’s too early to take a victory lap when Maddon returns to Tropicana Field on Tuesday and faces the Tampa Bay Rays. But by not overreacting and completely losing his players, and staying relentlessly positive and patient, and remembering there is life outside the stadium, and allowing all of this natural talent to finally take over, Maddon has the Cubs in position to make the playoffs for the third straight season, something that hasn’t happened for this franchise since player/manager Frank Chance won three NL pennants in a row and back-to-back World Series titles in 1907 and 1908.
“There’s only one time to really call a team meeting – if your best pitcher is pitching the next day against a really bad team,” Maddon said. “That’s when you could look good. Otherwise, try to refrain from that. Don’t pick the wrong day. In our game, sitting there, trying to rehash the obvious, there’s no motivational component to that whatsoever.
“When things tighten up like this, they need to see you be consistent, not inconsistent. If I were to do something like that – that’s something I never do – so that would send out all the wrong signals.
“I’ve been around managers that have done that in the past. I’ve been one in the minor leagues – and I hated me for it afterwards.
“For the group that’s always looking for the inspirational speech, I promise you, if in fact it had any impact at all, it might last 10 minutes by the time they got out to the field. And if the other team’s pitcher that night is better than yours, it’s not going to work.”
The Cubs have created huge advantages in terms of talent, payroll and experience. But Maddon has held it together while every member of the Opening Day rotation got injured at different points this season and an everyday catcher (Willson Contreras), a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), an All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell) and a Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) spent time on the disabled list.
“Honestly, it’s minor-league training, man,” Maddon said. “It happens all the time. You immediately start thinking about: ‘OK, what do I do now? What’s next? Who’s the replacement? How do we fix this? How do we plug the dike?’ That’s it. I don’t take a doomsday approach mentally ever.
“I reference it often – the minor-league training really matters a lot in these situations. You have to be creative sometimes. You have to utilize different people, different methods, possibly. But ‘How do you fix this?’ is your first thought.
“That’s the beauty of this game, man. It is an endurance test. And it is a test of depth a lot of times also. You have to have it. That’s where I go. I remember playing in the Texas League with eight position players and one of my pitchers had to be the DH. You just do it.”
Maddon is old enough to collect Social Security checks, but he remains an ideal modern manager. Not because he dyes his hair “Blue Steel” and organizes themed road trips that feel more about building his personal brand than any team-bonding concept.
It’s the way Maddon tames the media before and after every game, pumps The Geek Department for information, casually namedrops the assistant director of research and development (Jeremy Greenhouse) during his press briefings and sees the Cubs from 30,000 feet.
“This is an organization working as one,” Maddon said. “For years, I was a part of the other side where I thought nobody was listening and it’s really a tremendous disconnect. If I ever got a chance to be doing what I’m doing right now, I would absolutely listen to these folks, because I think it’s important.”
So when Theo Epstein’s front office pushes Jen-Ho Tseng to make his big-league debut in the middle of a pennant race, Maddon sells the decision. Even though Tseng wasn’t one of the 40 pitchers the Cubs put on their spring training roster, and Maddon had only seen him on video and just met him for about five minutes.
“I trust the people making these decisions,” Maddon said. “Having spent so much time in the minor leagues, I listen to minor-league people. I listen to front offices. I listen to people that get to see people play that I don’t get to see.
“So if your evaluators really believe strongly in this, and your minor-league people do, too, you listen to them. You believe. You trust. That’s part of how this thing works.”
If Maddon had emerged from obscurity to become a borderline Hall of Famer during that small-market miracle in Tampa – five seasons with at least 90 wins in nine years – then winning the World Series with the Cubs guaranteed his Cooperstown plaque.
Of course, Maddon got slammed for his Game 7 decisions and had to keep answering questions about it months and months later. The manager didn’t really lash out or second-guess himself – and once again his team seems to be peaking at the right time.
Since 2015, the Cubs have played 162 regular-season games in August, September and early October – and gone 109-53 plus winning five playoff rounds so far.
“It’s a mental thing, man,” Maddon said. “It’s competition. It’s the competing component of it. It goes so far beyond just looking at statistical information and lineups and where do they rank right now sabermetrically. It has nothing to do with (sabermetrics). I talked about the heartbeat last year. It’s going to show up over the next couple weeks again.”
As the Cubs begin their final day off of the regular season, they ride into the last two weeks of 2017 on a serious high.
The Cubs played 20 games in 20 days before their off-day a week ago, but since then, they've won six straight and are a season-high 17 games over .500. They have a four-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a six-game jump over the St. Louis Cardinals.
That's quite a swing of events after all the panic skirting through the Cubs fanbase at this time last week following a sweep at the hands of the Brewers.
"We're definitely playing at the highest level of mental energy we've played with all year, period," Joe Maddon said Sunday following the Cubs' sweep of the Cardinals. "It's coming at the right time."
The Cubs entered the weekend series with the Cardinals needing a strong showing and turned in an absolutely dominating performance instead.
They're now 11-4 against the Cardinals in 2017, the best record since 2007 against their in-division rivals.
Here are 10 reasons Cubs fans have to count their blessings before the final road trip of the year:
1. Post All-Star Break stars
The Cubs have been on a roll since the All-Star Break, going 40-21 with a +106 run differential:
#Cubs this season— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 17, 2017
Pre All-Star: 43-45, Run differential: 0
Post All-Star: 40-21, Run differential: +106
Which is the norm under Maddon in Chicago, as the Cubs have gone 140-69 in the season's second half over the last three years:
#Cubs after all-star break under Joe Maddon— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 17, 2017
2015: 50-25 (.667)
2016: 50-23 (.685)
2017: 40-21 (.656)
2. The Windy City
Wade Davis is still a perfect 31-for-31 in save chances, but Sunday may have been his closest call yet.
Dexter Fowler — who already homered earlier in the game to account for all three of St. Louis' runs — drove Davis' last pitch into deep center field, causing Davis and Cubs fans everywhere to react in anguish.
But the wind blew it back into play and into the waiting glove of Leonys Martin.
"I thought it was going to the scoreboard," Davis joked after the game.
Instead of a go-ahead homer, it was the final out and the Cubs were owners of a three-game streak.
3. Starting staff
Jose Quintana made one mistake Sunday, a three-run shot to Fowler in the sixth inning.
The Cubs' big summer acquisition was one out away from another quality start, but he was also the victim of some shoddy fielding behind him. Kris Bryant made an error and Kyle Schwarber failed to catch a flyball a few batters before Fowler's shot.
Quintana acknowledged he saw Kyle Hendricks' gem Saturday and wanted to go out and deliver his own strong outing.
The Cubs' starters are feeding off each other in a positive way at just the right time.
"We're competing at a pretty good level [as a team]," Davis said. "Our starters have really been carrying us the last 4-5 games. That's really been a big deal."
4. Solidfying the bullpen
The bullpen accounted for nine innings against the Cardinals and did not allow a run.
Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. appeared in all three games, teaming with Pedro Strop (two appearances) to get 21 outs combined.
Even Justin Wilson got into the mix, picking up a big strikeout in the only batter he faced Friday, helping swing the momentum in the Cubs' favor.
This is the time of the year where the bullpen earns their money and the Cubs will need to rely on Davis and Co. heavily with eight games remaining still against the Brewers and Cardinals.
The day off Monday helps add another opportunity for rest for Hector Rondon (elbow) and Koji Uehara (knee, back).
5. Regaining health
Even with Rondon and Uehara leaving the bullpen a little short, the Cubs have gotten great reports on frontline starter Jake Arrieta, who threw a 42-pitch bullpen Saturday and reportedly felt "grrreat." There is no word yet on when Arrieta will start, but it's possible the Cubs get him back early on this road trip.
Addison Russell, meanwhile, is back in a big way. He reached in all five plate appearances over the weekend, hitting a pinch-hit homer Saturday and collecting a single and three walks Sunday.
Willson Contreras is also showing no ill effects after missing about a month with a hamstring injury. He is hitting .444 with a 1.111 OPS in five games since returning from the DL and Contreras catcher served his one-game suspension Sunday, so he'll be ready to roll from Game 1 of the road trip.
6. Addison's back
Not only is Russell back, but he's already at the top of his game.
With several slick defensive plays over the weekend, Russell also has not made an out at the plate since Aug. 2, the last game he played before landing on the disabled list with a foot injury.
"Everything he's doing is looking good," Maddon said. "Great at-bats, no expanding of the zone. A lot like Contreras. Willy did the same thing coming back; he did not expand the strike zone. Addison played really well."
Russell's return also allows for a break for Javy Baez, who has had to play nearly every inning over the last six weeks. And when the two young infielders play at once, the Cubs have a pair of elite level defenders up the middle of the field.
The weekend served as a reminder to the baseball world how much the Cubs have missed Russell's presence this season and with two weeks left, his return to form couldn't have come at a better time.
7. Cardinals faltering
The Cardinals have had several moments over the course of the season where they looked down and out but they were simply overmatched in the three-game set at Wrigley Field. They threw their three best starting pitchers — Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha — and still couldn't pull out a victory in a crucial series.
The Cardinals are still within striking distance at six games back in the division and they host the Cubs for four games next week, but with just 13 games remaining on the schedule, time is fast running out for the Redbirds.
8. Their fate is in their own hands
The Cubs don't have to do too much scoreboard watching. They constantly talk about how their main focus is taking care of their own business and if they do so in the final two weeks, they'll have accomplished their first 2017 goal: Make the playoffs.
The Cubs don't have to rely on anybody else for their fate and can put away the Brewers next week with a strong showing (and then that four-game set in St. Louis immediately following).
9. All hands on deck
The Cubs got 19 players in both Friday and Sunday's games and played 15 different guys Saturday as Maddon didn't hesitate to use his full complement of weapons with the expanded September rosters.
Maddon loves when a lot of guys get involved because it gives them all a feeling of "ownership" in the victories.
The Cubs have remarkable depth on their roster and there are still questions that have to be answered before any sort of postseason roster (assuming they make it) can be constructed. These last few weeks are giving Maddon and Co. a glimpse of what everybody can do.
10. State of the offense
The Cubs lineup has been relentless over the last week, scoring 55 runs in six games. None of the Cardinals' top three starters could make it out of the sixth inning, with Lynn managing to get just 12 outs Sunday.
The Cubs now lead the NL in runs scored and any questions doubters had about their ability to score runs off championship-caliber pitching have been put to rest for at least a little while.