CHICAGO — If you think Cubs manager Joe Maddon is going to push the envelope as much as possible right now because his team is .500, think again. In fact, Maddon tends to go the other way when things go south. He prefers saving energy for when it matters most — down the stretch of a pennant race.
“‘Patience’ is a really big word right now and keeping a clear head about what’s going on and how you’ve done [it] in the past,” Maddon explained before Sunday’s victory in Pittsburgh. “I do believe having rested, healthy people by August matters a lot. I have to be more mindful of that for another six weeks. I have to be mindful of not pushing anyone over their limits. … If you do, right now, I promise you, you will be toast by Aug. 15. You will not see that wonderful finish we are used to seeing.”
You might not like Maddon’s bullpen management, but this is where he shines. He is as cognizant of the need of rest for his players as any manager of his era. The result — at least in Chicago — has been two years of big second-half success, especially in August, when the weather is at its hottest and perhaps other teams are wearing down. The Cubs are a combined 41-17 in the last two Augusts.
“Based on experience the two times I’ve been to the World Series, the following season there’s been like this push to get back in, normally, and when the push occurs, what normally occurs, is you run out of fuel by August,” Maddon explained. “I don’t want that. I’d rather have fuel in the tank, then really push down to the end.”
Fans would prefer the Cubs to be in front by double digits in the National League Central, as they were last year, but because this season isn’t unfolding in the same way, the next-best option is for the Cubs to be playing their best baseball at the most important time. Perhaps the division’s mediocrity has allowed them to save energy until it’s really needed.
Would every manager sit his best player two out of three days when his team is struggling as much as the Cubs have? Probably not, but that’s exactly what Maddon did on Friday and Sunday, when he saw a fatigued Kris Bryant struggle through strikeout after strikeout this week.
“Don’t push through a day game in Pittsburgh when you know the guy, both mentally and physically, needs a little bit of boost right now,” Maddon said. “‘Oh, we’re down, we’re not in first place.’ Don’t do that now. That would be the conventional method to push guys through moments like this. I think it’s exactly the opposite.”
Maddon has never been a man of convention. At the very least, his player-usage strategy must be seen through before anyone makes an assessment. He could look like a genius if it works out. The year after his Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series in 2008, his team started out slow — just like this year’s Cubs — but then went on a run, winning 11 of 12 in late June and then a 13 of 16 run in August.
While this Cubs team works through some injuries and poor performance, Maddon is hoping to keep their heads above water until that run comes for them later this year. That’s likely to come after the All-Star break, when the Cubs’ schedule looks easier. The division standings are a blessing, not in disguise but out in the open.
“I really want to be more proactive with resting guys right now,” Maddon added. “Not pushing starters too hard right now. Not beating up the bullpen right now. And try to stay very pertinent to the race, which we have to this point.”
Will it work? Cubs fans dream of a second half when their team takes command and sends notice to the rest of the baseball world that the defending champions are not dead. As with most of Maddon’s ideas, you might not like it. But at least his explanations are logical: Rest now, take advantage of the bad division and put your foot on the pedal later.
It could work.
“In spite of not playing anywhere near our best baseball, we’re not in bad position right now, so we have to be grateful and thankful for that,” Maddon said. “I do believe our best game is ahead of us this year.”