Cubs manager Joe Maddon is realistic about where his team is today.
“We’ve earned the right to be in this position,” Maddon said of the team’s 32-33 record heading into this weekend’s series at Pittsburgh. “We’ve played well enough to be a .500 club. “We have a nice group, and I believe in our group, but we have to prove it on the field. It’s very simple.”
Even with that assessment, the Cubs still have a couple of things going for them: the calendar and geography.
There are 97 games remaining in the regular season, and the Cubs entered Thursday’s off-day only two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.
The Central remains a division for the taking. As defending world champions, the Cubs have the most talent in the division, and while the Brewers have been a nice story to date, few expect them to win it.
The Cubs averaged 100 victories over the past two seasons, but the good news is that it they may be able to win it this year with 85-87 wins. And once a team gets into the postseason, anything can happen.
“It’s about getting there,” Maddon said. “Of course, you’re always trying to win as many games. It’s kind of cool to say you averaged 100 wins over the last two seasons, absolutely. But it’s a different year, and you’ve got to attack it differently based on what’s going on in front of you, and that’s all we’re doing right now.”
Asked by a New York reporter after Wednesday’s disappointing loss to the Mets for reasons the Cubs have struggled, Maddon cited youth.
“[Ian] Happ didn’t play in the big leagues last year,” he said referring to rookie Ian Happ.
“[Willson] Contreras played half a season. [Kyle] Schwarber did not play at all. [Javier] Baez was a backup player. And [Albert] Almora came up in the middle of the season. I love my names as much as everybody else, but these are really young, inexperienced guys.
“What you’re primarily seeing is young guys battling to get back to where we had been last year without the benefit of having veteran experience.”
One of those veterans, team leader Anthony Rizzo, said the Cubs must do several things better.
“We’ve just got to win,” he said. “We’ve got to hold leads. We’ve got to hit better with runners in scoring position. We’ve got to give our pitchers better opportunities to come in with a bigger lead. All the little things, all the little things you’ve just got to get back to. We do a good job of it, but we’ve got to do a better job.
“We’re developing guys and winning ballgames at the same time. Teams don’t do that. We developed guys last year and won the World Series. No team’s ever done that, I don’t think. You’ve got to take your lumps. It’s baseball. It’s a cat-and-mouse game where they’re going to adjust to us, we’re going to adjust to them. There’s going to be good days and bad days. Everyone knows that. Just keep perspective of that.”
How the wind blows: There were a couple lighter notes struck during the New York trip. One came when I mentioned to Maddon that the ever-changing wind at Wrigley Field forces him to manage in two ballparks, depending on which way it is blowing.
“We’re actually managing the lake,” he said. “It’s not the ballpark. It’s the lake. I never want to denigrate that ballpark. I hold it in such high esteem. So I’ve concluded it’s not about the ballpark, it’s about the lake. The lake truly controls all of that. It’s Lake 1, Lake 2. Leave Wrigley out of it. Wrigley is the best. I’ve concluded that.”
When another reporter cited a study showing that this year’s baseballs are “juiced,” thus leading to more home runs, Maddon didn’t exactly go there.
“It’s leaving,” he said of baseballs flying out of ballparks. “I don’t know specifically about all that stuff. It’s one of those moments I’d prefer steering clear of right now, especially being in New York City (where Major League Baseball has its offices). I have an off-day [Thursday], and I want it to be an off-day.
“I don’t know. But the ball has been going. I can’t deny that. We’ve hit home runs into the wind at home that have surprised me a little bit, too. But I’m certain you’re going to hear that’s not true, that the ball is the same, which I accept.”
Cubs vs. Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park
TV: WGN Friday; FOX Saturday; Comcast SportsNet Sunday
Radio: WSCR 670-AM
Pitching matchups: The Cubs’ Eddie Butler (3-2) vs. Trevor Williams (3-3) Friday at 6:05 p.m.; Jake Arrieta (6-4) vs. Ivan Nova (6-4) Saturday at 7:15 p.m.; John Lackey (4-7) vs. Jameson Taillon (3-1) Sunday at 12:35 p.m.
At a glance: This is the Cubs’ second foray into Pittsburgh. They beat the Pirates two of three in late April. The Pirates are 30-36 overall but they’re 18-16 at home. The Cubs are 12-18 on the road. The Pirates’ Josh Harrison has a hitting line of .305/.374/.469 with 8 homers and 22 RBI. Andrew McCutchen is at .255/.331/.456 with the team lead in homers (11) and RBI (35). The Cubs are in the midst of playing 17 of 20 games on the road. They have four players with double-digit home run totals: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez.
Next: San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field, Monday-Wednesday