On the Cubs‘ flight to Southern California in the wee hours of Monday, manager Joe Maddon had no trouble unwinding after Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw changed the complexion of the National League Championship Series.
“I was dead asleep on my seat, my wife, Jaye, sitting next to me,” Maddon said Monday at Dodger Stadium. “I’d had enough wine to go to sleep.”
His players, however, were another story in the rear of the plane. Reliever Pedro Strop sensed uneasiness after the 1-0 loss in Game 2 at Wrigley Field, especially among his fellow pitchers. So Strop turned the tables on Maddon and put his manager in a save situation.
“As a good teammate, one of the guys who’s been here the longest, I just wanted to make sure everybody stayed calm because that was a really good baseball game,” Strop said Monday. “So I told ‘Chappy’ (Aroldis Chapman), ‘Go get Joe.’ I wanted guys to listen to Joe and interact and relax and not think we’re in a tough situation just because we lost one game.”
As requested, Chapman approached Maddon, who was in a deep slumber. Trying for a six-out save is nothing for a closer compared with the pressure of waking up his sleeping manager.
“Aroldis comes up and pokes me on the shoulder and said, ‘We want you in the back,'” said Maddon, who was honored to oblige. “So I went back there, and when I’ve had too much wine to drink, my Spanish gets a little bit better because you lose that trepidation about saying the right or wrong thing.”
Strop’s interpretation of Maddon’s impromptu interaction: He said all the right things, and exactly what some Cubs needed to hear.
“He’s so easygoing, I’ve never seen him in a bad mood in two years — unless he’s fighting with the umpires,” Strop said. “We’re free to talk to him any time of day or night. Door’s always open. The connection is really good, and he made everyone feel better.”
Whether because of Maddon or the maturity that develops over the course of a 103-victory regular season, the Cubs arrived with a familiar sense of confidence that was less obvious immediately after they were shut out Sunday night. A California-cool vibe permeated Monday’s workout under sunny blue skies, with some players kidding each other about who has the deeper tan and others soaking in the scenery of Chavez Ravine.
Perhaps the Cubs feel so comfortable in SoCal because they typically wear pajamas to this ballpark during their annual visit under Maddon. But this is not another of those onesie theme trips, and no Maddon-inspired gimmicks are necessary to get players’ minds right for the biggest three-game series of the season.
Nobody demonstrates the Cubs’ ability to focus amid the frivolity better than Jake Arrieta, the ideal Game 3 starter pitching in the perfect setting. This is where Arrieta announced to America he was special on Aug. 30, 2015, no-hitting the Dodgers on national TV from a mound he complimented Monday.
This is where Arrieta’s me-against-the-world mentality can come in handy on the road. This is the moment Maddon promised Arrieta he would be more prepared for than he was in the 2015 playoffs, a tough conversation they had in Mesa, Ariz., in the cafeteria at the team’s spring training complex.
Maddon recalled telling Arrieta: “Listen, you’re going to be upset with me sometimes taking you out of games a little bit earlier, but understand it’s going to pay off in the latter part of the season. Our intention is to play deeply into October and possibly into November this year.”
And here the Cubs are in mid-October, three wins from their first World Series in 71 years, with a chance to regain control of the NLCS if a refreshed Arrieta is Arrieta for his team, the way Kershaw was Kershaw for the Dodgers. The late afternoon shadows in the first few innings give Arrieta an opportunity to get into an early groove.
“You try to enjoy it as much as you can without putting too much pressure on yourself,” Arrieta said. “This is the fun part.”
Not sure the middle of the Cubs batting order would agree yet. The biggest problem remains that the Cubs’ 3-4-5 hitters — Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell — have combined to go 6-for-60 in the playoffs. The situation calls for Maddon to drop Russell deep in the order, consider flip-flopping No. 2 hitter Kris Bryant and Rizzo and juggling the lineup.
Why not bench the struggling Jason Heyward for Albert Almora against lefty Rich Hill? What about moving Javy Baez up to get more at-bats? For a guy unafraid to risk overmanaging his bullpen, Maddon sounded less than certain about tinkering offensively.
“There’s only so much you can do when manipulating your lineup,” Maddon said. “You don’t just make wholesale changes.”
A few minutes later, Maddon hedged.
“You get to this point, you’ve got five games left to really make it right as opposed to 75 — there is a difference,” he said. “So … I am thinking about different things, yes.”
Waking up the manager worked out well for the Cubs. Now Maddon must do what he can to wake up the bats before his team really starts to worry.