CHICAGO — They can blame the weather, an awful late-season schedule and myriad other non-baseball related factors, but if the Chicago Cubs want to return to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year, they’ll have to rise above it all and hold off a hard-charging Milwaukee Brewers team.
“This is a battle for sure,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said Tuesday before the Cubs’ 3-0 win over the Brewers. “We have 19 games to right the ship. The biggest one is today.”
Tuesday’s victory kept Milwaukee at bay — and in second place — with just 18 games remaining. The teams square off for the rubber game of their series — and the season finale between them — on Wednesday. The series has been filled with drama and close games, including Monday’s 3-2 Brewers win that drew them within a game in the standings. But Milwaukee can’t leave town in first place, as Cubs manager Joe Maddon is performing some of his mental tricks on his fatigued team.
If a makeup game against the Washington Nationals in Washington is a go on Thursday, the Cubs will have reported to the ballpark an unheard-of 30 straight days by the end of the streak. That’s taxing, so Maddon is preaching an easier-said-than done message, especially about Thursday.
“Keep the switch on,” he said. “You have to think you’re going to play. … The trap there is to think you’re not going to play, then all of a sudden you are, then you have to turn the switch on. That normally creates a bad result.”
Hurricane Florence might keep the teams from playing once it makes landfall on the East Coast, and it might give the Cubs a much-needed day off. Team president Theo Epstein said as much on Monday but then stopped himself, knowing that rooting for a hurricane isn’t the right thing to do.
“We don’t want anyone to suffer in that hurricane, but if it’s raining in D.C. on Thursday, and you get that day off, it will be nice for our guys to get a well-earned off day,” Epstein said.
He reiterated that idea several times — that baseball should take a backseat to the safety of others — but the mental break would be nice for the Cubs, as it’s apparent that they just aren’t themselves, especially at the plate. According to Maddon, one sign of fatigue is chasing pitches. Since August, the Cubs have been at the top of the league in that category.
“It’s a tough stretch, man,” Maddon said. “Fatigue is nasty. When you get a tired mind, it’s not easy to play at your top level. We all know what it’s like to feel like your brain is swimming a little bit.”
“I love all my teammates, but seeing them 30 days in a row is not what I intend to do on a yearly basis,” Rizzo said with a smirk.
It made Tuesday’s win all the more important. Survival mode isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re the team on top. Crossing off days on the calendar can be healthy.
“It’s a totally different mindset being in first than chasing,” Rizzo said. “We have to do everything we can to stay in first.”
Another win Wednesday would help solidify things as the Cubs continue to play catch-up in the schedule. Their nine weather-related postponements are the most in the National League. Maddon even referenced missing their mental skills coach, Ken Ravizza, who passed away suddenly during the season. Ravizza was a master at helping players in situations such as the one facing the Cubs right now.
“As a tribute to Kenny, let’s keep that method alive,” Maddon said. “It’s a tough stretch, one of the worst you’re going to go through in baseball. Going into that 23 [in a row], we knew that. We handled that well. Now it’s gotten even more strenuous based on what may happen.”
As easy as it might be to focus on what comes Thursday, the Cubs have done their best to keep a narrow vision. That will be essential if they’re going to win their division for a third straight season. The big-picture look just won’t suffice for the predicament they’re in.
“There are no excuses,” Ben Zobrist said. “Everyone has had to deal with bad weather across the league over the course of the season. It’s a tough time of the year to go to the field as many games as we’ve had to. But we have extra help right now. You would rather have it happen now than June or July.
“It’s tough, but we keep persevering.”