Chicago Cubs

What sort of job has Joe Maddon done with this Cubs team?

What sort of job has Joe Maddon done with this Cubs team?

At different points throughout a disappointing season, Cubs president Theo Epstein has used the code words you would normally hear about a manager on the hot seat. Epstein vented his frustrations while the Cubs kept staggering around the .500 mark, admitting the team didn’t have a clear identity or play with the same edge.

But Joe Maddon is a future Hall of Famer, the only manager to lead this franchise to a World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration and a larger-than-life personality in the middle of a long-term contract that will pay him in the neighborhood of $28 million.

Maddon oversees an ultra-talented team that overall has been one of the healthiest in the majors this season. The Cubs play in a mediocre division with three small-market franchises that ranked in the bottom eight in terms of Opening Day payroll – and in a big city where even athletes on last-place teams get treated like royalty.

Is there anything Maddon could have done differently – or can do now – with the defending champs?

“Collectively, from top to bottom, I think obviously we haven’t had the same kind of year as last year, or even the year before,” general manager Jed Hoyer said before Monday night’s 15-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds pushed the Cubs out to a 1.5-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. “That assessment is on everybody. I wouldn’t single anything out about Joe that he hasn’t done.

“But in general, as a group, starting with Theo and me, I think we haven’t played as well. We haven’t been as sharp. And that’s something we have to find. But the good thing about baseball is that we still have 46 games left to find it. Starting now.”

Maddon’s “American Legion Week” began with the Wrigley Field clubhouse opening to the media at 4:30 p.m., or almost an hour later than normal for a 7:05 game. Before doing his pregame press briefing, Maddon unfurled a blue-and-gold “Palatine Post No. 690” flag in the interview room and held it up for the cameras. The fine for a player, coach or manager getting to work too early this week is handing over a $100 bottle of wine (with receipt).

“Just show up a little bit later, a little bit more rested mentally,” Maddon said. “Go out and just play the game of baseball like it was intended to be played.

“Data, extra work, all that kind of stuff – it’s the middle of August. We’ve had since the beginning of February to get all that stuff in the barn. So I just want us to play.”

[MORE CUBS: Will Cubs make another deal in August with Willson Contreras sidelined?]

The Cubs have given up 91 runs in the first inning this season – or almost 30 more than any other inning – and seen their defense slip from a historic level to a point where Maddon keeps harping on mental mistakes and making the routine plays routinely. Though the Cubs are still a top-three team in terms of defensive efficiency, even Maddon admits they have not passed the eye test.

Maddon is also a progressive thinker who takes the entire 162-game schedule into account, believes in rest and recovery, tries to keep role players involved and keeps sending positive vibes into the clubhouse and through the media.

“Good or bad, it would have nothing to do with us showing up early or late,” Maddon said. “Taking 50 swings or 100 swings tonight or not has nothing to do with our success or not. When it comes to the offensive side of our team right now, more than anything, it’s about swinging at bad pitches. So if you want to go out there and practice taking pitches, that might be more beneficial.

“There are so many disconnected thoughts in our game regarding work and how you work. When it comes to data and video and information, I’m all about it. But at some point, you got to turn it down just a little bit and go out there and play unencumbered.”

Maddon projected so much confidence and pushed all the right buttons in 2015 when the Cubs went 42-18 in August, September and early October combined, surging to 97 wins and into the NL Championship Series.

All the first- and second-guessing over how Maddon managed last year’s World Series Game 7 overshadowed the way he got the Cubs to “Embrace The Target” and play loose yet focused under enormous pressure.

Maybe Maddon’s sense of calm is the best way to handle this three-ring circus and he will be proven right if a 62-55 team corrects itself and finally takes off. “American Legion Week” started a run where the Cubs will face last-place teams for 13 straight games and 70 percent of the remaining schedule is against teams currently at or below .500.

This is how it works: The manager will either get credit for steering the team toward another division title – or the blame for a stunning collapse – whether or not he thinks like that.

“I just try to treat every game with equal amount of respect,” Maddon said. “I don’t apply any more weight to one game over another. I’ve always said that. I mean it.

“You got to play it right every night. And please don’t take anything for granted in this game, or in any part of your life. I’m just not that guy. We got to come out and play our best game.”

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester went into get-off-my-lawn-mode, tired of math nerds and people being famous for no reason and the questions about whether or not he will be ready for the playoffs.   

Lester is actually a great talker when he gets going, introspective, self-deprecating and a voice of authority after winning three World Series rings with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

But Lester didn’t exactly sound ready to pop champagne bottles after Monday night’s 10-2 win at Busch Stadium eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the National League Central race and guaranteed at least a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers for the division title.  

Whether it was Lester’s brutal honesty, simmering frustration or high expectations for himself, he downplayed a quality start against a team still battling for a wild-card spot. He also took a subtle jab at the team’s sophisticated game-planning system and ripped the culture that brought us “Nacho Man.”

“I got to get back to being me,” said Lester, who had given up 27 hits and 12 walks in his previous four September starts since coming off the disabled list with what the Cubs termed left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. “I got to get back to putting the hitters on a defensive mode, as opposed to trying to pitch to a scouting report from pitch 1.

“That was a conscious effort going into tonight, and I felt a lot better with everything, based off of that.”

Lester attacked the Cardinals with fastballs, working with 4-0, 5-0 and 8-1 leads across six innings. Once again, he found his rhythm later, giving up two walks in the fourth, getting his only 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth and maxing out at 103 pitches.

The Cardinals scored their only run off Lester in the second inning when Jedd Gyorko launched a ball 410 feet out toward left field and “Big Mac Land” – in the same at-bat where shortstop Addison Russell almost made a Derek Jeter catch and turned “Nacho Man” into an instant celebrity.   

“I’m laughing more at the fact that the guy’s taking pictures and signing autographs,” Lester said. “I really don’t know what he did. A guy fell into him and got nacho cheese on his arm and now he’s taking pictures and signing autographs. I guess that shows you where our society is at right now with all that stuff.

“I really didn’t think it was that far foul. I thought it was a pretty routine play that just kept going. And I think it surprised Addie as well. So great effort, but I don’t understand the other stuff.”

Classic Lester, who changed the clubhouse vibe and fundamental nature of this rivalry when he decided to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season and will be 3-for-3 in playoff seasons as a Cub.

“I don’t know,” Lester said three times when asked if those command issues are rooted in taking more than two weeks off in the middle of the season. “I haven’t had stuff like this before, so figure it out as we go.”

How close are you to where you want to be?

“I don’t know,” Lester said. “I was good tonight, so let’s go with that.”

The Cubs trusted Lester enough to give him $155 million guaranteed and make him their Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year. But the team’s inner circle of decision-makers had to be breathing a sign of relief, knowing that plans will take shape before Lester’s final regular-season start, what should be a meaningless Game 161 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.  

“He’s just been searching, command-wise, (and) I can’t give you an exact reason why,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We just need to get him out of the gate a little bit more on top of his game. Again, I can’t give you a solid reason. He’s well. The numbers on the gun are good. It’s just a matter of executing his pitches and finishing them.”   

Lester always seems to be so hard on himself on the mound, and that competitive fire has made him one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The Cubs expect to see that guy show up in October against the Washington Nationals.   

“Everything was just a little bit sharper today than it has been in a little while, so that’s good, moving in the right direction,” Lester said. “There’s a few things in there that I need to clean up. But as far as overall, it’s definitely a positive."

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs played with an all-out intensity that drove Addison Russell to sprint over from shortstop and dive headfirst into the front-row seats beyond the left-field line, kicking a tray of nachos out of some dude’s left hand.

The St. Louis Cardinals have sunk to the point where Nacho Man became their biggest star on Monday night, going viral on social media and getting interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and both CSN Chicago and Fox Sports Midwest during the in-game broadcasts.

Russell didn’t catch that foul ball in the second inning with a Derek Jeter leap that left his right hand covered in cheese. He got booed when the Busch Stadium video board showed the replay of the nachos hitting the ground. He made amends by bringing out another order of nachos and taking a selfie with the Cardinal fan.

“He had a great night at the ballgame,” Russell said. “Initially off the bat, I was thinking that I could make the play. I didn’t see the fence and collided with it and got all nacho-d up.”

No, this didn’t feel like a playoff atmosphere at all, beginning with the 85-degree heat and ending with entire sections of empty seats. Jedd Gyorko actually homered during that at-bat, but it didn’t matter because the Cubs had already given Jon Lester a four-run lead before he threw his first pitch in what was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for October.

The Cubs will be there as the National League Central champions, eliminating the Cardinals from the division race with a low-stress 10-2 victory that sets up the chance for a blowout party late Tuesday night in the visiting clubhouse with another win or a Milwaukee Brewers’ loss.

“Woof,” catcher Willson Contreras said when asked what it would mean to clinch in St. Louis. “It always means a lot.”

Sensing the opportunity to bury the Cardinals, the Cubs jumped St. Louis right-hander Luke Weaver, a talented rookie who came in with a 7-1 record and a 2.05 ERA and lasted only three innings. Russell – who had been such a clutch performer late in last year’s playoff run – started it by driving a two-out, bases-loaded double into the right-field corner in the first inning.

Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP, drove Weaver’s 93-mph fastball beyond the left-field wall and into the visiting bullpen for his 29th homer and a 5-0 lead in the second inning. Javier Baez, the No. 8 hitter, launched a three-run homer that traveled 422 feet and slammed off an advertisement overhang above the bullpen in the third inning.

This is like a dream for Cubs fans enjoying this road trip to St. Louis and trolling Cardinal fans this week (with or without taking their nachos).

“I just want to win, honestly,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I understand all that. But I’m so contrary to coming to try to force those kind of thoughts in my methods. It’s about tonight’s game. And whenever we have this first chance to get there, let’s get there. You never want it to drag out. You want to be able to set things up, so it doesn’t matter to me.

“Believe me, man, I just want to win tonight.”

Or, as 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist said: “The testosterone probably raises a little bit this time of year.”

Get your goggles and trash bags ready. The Cubs are the type of team that designed a Party Room into their state-of-the-art clubhouse as part of the $600 million Wrigleyville development and stretched out their World Series victory lap across Disney World, “Saturday Night Live,” and countless talk shows, commercials and ring ceremonies.

Anthony Rizzo – the only player left from the 2012 team that lost 101 games and a consultant on that Party Room project – insisted that celebrating in front of their rivals at a stadium that used to give the Cubs nightmares wouldn’t make a difference.       

“I really would love to be able to do it at Wrigley and use our new facilities even more,” Rizzo said. “But St. Louis is a good baseball city. They appreciate good baseball.

“If it was there, if it was in Arizona, it doesn’t matter where we clinch. Our goal was to win the division.”  

Even if it took until Sept. 26.

“It’s starting to smell like playoff baseball,” Russell said. “I know that these guys are amped up. It’s definitely feeling like playoff baseball."