You know things have gotten sideways when teams start holding players-only meetings. That the Cubs held one such powwow just a day before Joe Maddon’s mid-season state of the union was purely coincidental, but consecutive somnambulant performances in Pittsburgh have raised even more questions about the direction of this “season of reckoning.”
As you might imagine, the players remained somewhat mum on the content of their confab, though Brad Brach shared a bit with ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. Of course, you’ve got to strip away platitudes and idioms to get to the heart of the matter, which is that the Cubs have pretty clearly fallen away from that whole urgency thing we’d heard so much about.
“We reiterated what we had planned in spring,” Brach explained. “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.
“Anytime there are too many meetings, it’s not a good sign, but I think it was a perfect time to do it. 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.”
And lock it down they did…by dropping the first two games of a four-game set it in Pittsburgh by a combined 23-6 score. In true Cubes fashion, they managed a fake rally in the first game and then scored a meaningless late run Tuesday night. That tendency to put their collective foot to pedal late is a hallmark of Maddon’s Chicago tenure, beginning with a 2015 squad that became a juggernaut after being no-hit by Cole Hamels and the Phillies.
But the past few seasons, it’s looked like they were on cruise control and just conserving energy through much of the first half. This time around, it’s as though their transmission has dropped into limp-home mode to the keep them from falling apart as they reach the break.
Their play is sloppy and their collective body language is that of a 10-year-old shuffling sullenly to take the trash out after being told for the umpteenth time. Maddon isn’t a stern father figure, though, so he’s not dressing his team down or pointing out their fundamental flaws. More likely, he’s reminding them of some of the same things Brach mentioned.
“I wasn’t there talking numbers and cut-offs and relays and more batting practice,” Maddon said of his Tuesday pregame summit. “I was talking about some concepts that I think are important that we may have gotten away from.”
He probably told them to do simple better while respecting 90, then asked that they try not to suck. The Cubs also need to embrace the target, which has shifted after they missed a golden opportunity to increase their division lead and have since fallen out of it.
“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,” Maddon said. “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.”
Another one of Maddon’s pet phrases is, “If you think it looks hot, wear it,” which could mean he’s getting fitted for a suit made from his chair’s upholstery. Not that the manager is worried about his lame-duck job security, as he expressed to 670 The Score’s Laurence Holmes Tuesday afternoon.
“People are going to do that immediately, and I understand that,” Maddon said when asked how the Cubs’ play reflects on his leadership. “That’s just the way this industry works. That’s the way the world works. I don’t take it personally. I know what I do and how I do it. I think the body of work speaks for itself. We’re in a moment right now that we have to get through.
“Like I said, it’s not like we need to do anything spectacularly different or add anything new. We just have to get guys to, again, think properly in the moment and process this moment in a better way. I understand that. That’s how people react. It’s a long baseball season. You go through bad moments, and I’ve been there before. But I promise you, I don’t take it personally.”
Gosh, he kind of said a lot to say nothing, huh? With all due respect, and I say this as one of the legions who have grown very fond of Maddon as a character and a manager of personalities during his time in Chicago, there’s a point at which blame will have to fall. With Maddon on an expiring deal and having already burned through too many coaches, an exit prior to the conclusion of his contract isn’t out of the question.
That’s not just a matter of the Cubs’ lackluster play, it’s about the decisions the manager is making on a daily basis. When even mild-mannered studio analyst David DeJesus is openly questioning the use of Mike Montgomery and calling for David Bote to get more playing time, you know something has gone awry.
Dillon Maples was looking a little shaky and his control problems are well-documented, but to call for Montgomery to face Adam Frazier was beyond curious. Not only is Frazier hot enough at the plate to flash-boil the rain that otherwise would have soaked him Tuesday night, but he’s a lefty. And while you’d normally want that kind of matchup, Monty came into the game allowing a 1.338 OPS and .541 wOBA to left-handed hitters.
Those marks are now up to 1.380 and .557, the latter of which is easily the worst in the league among relievers with more than 4.0 innings logged against lefty batters this season. Frazier’s three-run homer didn’t decide the game, but it served to deflate the Cubs after a two-hour rain delay that had already dampened their spirits.
As much as anything, an apparent lack of verve has characterized the Cubs over the last few weeks. Maddon talked about finding an edge, but something is really wrong if they’re still searching for that in July. Having an edge from the start of spring training was the central focus of Theo Epstein’s impassioned postmortem press conference at the close of the 2018 season, so not having one now is an indictment of the entire organization.
Again, maybe something changes when the Cubs finally get a few days to rest and refocus next week. Some personnel changes will help with that, but the onus is on everyone from the front office to the players on the bench to figure out how to put this train back on the tracks. Because if they don’t, that whole reckoning thing might become a reality.
Or, you know, it won’t and the status quo will have to continue to suffice. Good times!