MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Gritty Cubs up to task with series tied

Under Maddon, Chicago has shown ability to bounce back in postseason

Gritty Cubs up to task with series tied

CHICAGO -- Is anybody surprised the defending World Series champions are in the tightest postseason series on the board?

You shouldn't be. This is how the Cubs do business in the Joe Maddon era. Their best work comes on the high wire.

Game Date Matchup TV/Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 6 CHC 3, WSH 0 WATCH
Gm 2 Oct. 7 WSH 6, CHC 3 WATCH
Gm 3 Oct. 9 CHC 2, WSH 1 WATCH
Gm 4 Oct. 11 WSH 5, CHC 0 WATCH
Gm 5 Oct. 12 CHC 9, WSH 8 WATCH

It fits the script the Cubs have written since 2015 that they were unable to hold an eighth-inning lead on Saturday in Washington, returning to Wrigley Field with the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile tied one game apiece.

They'll have to win at least one of Game 3 against the Nationals' Max Scherzer today or a possible Game 5 against Stephen Strasburg on Thursday to sustain their hopes of defending the championship they won in such dramatic fashion last November in Cleveland.

That's a tall order -- but then again, so is beating the likes of Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto and Gerrit Cole.

"We don't have to feel any pressure facing Scherzer,'' Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said before Sunday's workout. "He has to throw a strike. He has to throw the ball around the zone. I don't care who we're facing."

Kyle Schwarber credits Maddon, Theo Epstein's front office and veteran players such as Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jason Heyward for creating the culture that has allowed the North Siders to thrive.

Maddon has been a difference-maker since he was snatched away from the Rays to be a curse-buster. There was plenty of skepticism in Arizona in his first Spring Training in 2015, and he met it head on.

In a famous interview aboard the Cousin Eddie, the RV he was living in, an ESPN reporter asked Maddon about the Cubs' sad history -- everything from the Billy Goat curse to the ground ball through Leon Durham's legs, capped off by the Bartman game.

Maddon didn't roll his eyes or say it was silly. He said he could understand how fans might expect the worst. Then he said the following: "I don't vibrate at that frequency.''

Nor does his team, after decades of being baseball's favorite tuning fork.

Maddon on the Cubs' maturation

Between 1984 and Maddon's arrival, the Cubs were 1-11 in postseason elimination games. They're 7-1 in those games under Maddon, including three straight wins over the Indians in the World Series.

These guys know how to lose and move on. Maddon believes the Cubs even used their lowest moment so far in the postseason -- the 2015 NL Championship Series sweep by the Mets -- as a learning point.

"That definitely caused a lot of guys to grow up more quickly,'' Maddon said. "There was a lot of edge-building at that time, sharpening.''

Maddon loved the attitude of his players and staff on the Saturday night flight to Chicago, after the dramatic home runs from Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman rallied the Nationals to a 6-3 victory. The Cubs were two outs away from turning a two-run lead over to closer Wade Davis, but he never got out of the bullpen.

Water off a duck's back, to hear Maddon talk.

"I think we have been really good at getting hit in the jaw a little bit and moving on,'' Maddon said. "I'm looking forward to that again [in Game 3].''

Maddon has seen teams that couldn't bounce back from disappointing scenarios. He said it happened with the Angels when he was a coach for Mike Scioscia.

They won the World Series in 2002 and had a chance to get back in '05, but they lost four games in a row to the White Sox in the American League Championship Series. The first of those was when A.J. Pierzynski dashed to first base after seemingly being struck out. Umpire Doug Eddings' call hung over the rest of that series.

Maddon wants his players to feel bad for 30 minutes after a loss, then move on.

"I learned that years ago,'' Maddon said. "I thought, when I was with the Angels, there was a lot of times guys would carry the previous day's loss into the locker room, which led to a loss that day, which caused them to be angry again, which led to the loss the next day. Makes no sense. None. To carry a negative moment in your life, it makes no sense. You need to discard it.''

One thing Maddon would love to change is the success of his leadoff hitters. Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. each went 0-for-4 in Games 1 and 2, and it's guesswork who will be in the leadoff spot on Monday.

Maybe Jon Jay. Maybe Ian Happ. Maybe a mystery guest entering through Door No. 3. Who knows?

"It's been a revolving door all year, there's no question about it,'' Maddon said. "I don't think it's been a detriment in any sense. … You might see something different [in Game 3]. I haven't decided yet, but you may. But that's nothing different than we've done all year.''

Under Maddon, the Cubs are 9-3 in the postseason when their leadoff man scores and 6-8 when he doesn't. They have a .333 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot in wins, and a .234 on-base percentage in losses.

Little things mean a lot in October. That showed when the Cubs beat Strasburg in the NLDS opener.

"That guy was the nastiest human on the planet for five, six innings, and we were able to get to him,'' Schwarber said. "That's how it has to be. There was no panic in our dugout. You just have to be able to stay focused, and when you get that pitch to drive, you have to do it.''

It's nice to have history on your side.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.