David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Joe Maddon says he’s not a betting man. But those who do wager, and the oddsmakers who manipulate them, believe his Cubs will win the World Series.
The Cubs are nearly unanimous favorites in the Las Vegas books, listed at 9-2 on the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. And the Mets, who swept them in last year’s NLCS? A few ticks below, at 10-1 with the Dodgers and Astros. It’s the money that pushes around these lines, of course. So maybe the legion of Cubs fans has a short memory.
The Mets have the same rotation that neutralized the hard-hitting Cubs in the NLCS, to the tune of a .164 batting average. So with these teams seeing each other again Thursday at Cashman Field, for the first time since that mauling, why should we believe another playoff meeting will be any different? Will the additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist be the X-factor?
“I think they help,” Maddon said Thursday. “I’d also want to believe it’s just the natural progression of a young hitter. Our DNA has been really to power the baseball. Strikeouts are OK. But I’ve really made a push this camp for even our bigger guys to understand to make adaptations when you get into the count, with two strikes. Some of it’s physical, but most of it’s mental.”
Maddon is speaking of precocious bruisers Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell, who surely benefited from the experience, as demoralizing as it was. In between the mime visits and actual cubs rolling around the Mesa turf, Maddon’s more orthodox teaching tactics seem to have taken hold.
The Cubs swatted 46 homers this spring, third in the majors, with the seventh-ranked OPS (.825). The Mets hit 13 home runs — only the Marlins (nine) had fewer — and their .688 OPS was third from the bottom.
We tend to overlook the Mets’ lineup, instead overemphasizing the rotation. But the team appeared somewhat sluggish during the Grapefruit League and limped into Vegas winless in the previous 13 games. The Mets made it 14 with a 5-1 loss to the Cubs on Thursday night.
Terry Collins insists there is a logical explanation for the malaise. He’s also confident that the unsettling condition is temporary and suddenly will vanish Sunday night at Kauffman Stadium. “Our guys know what they’re facing,” he said. “I really do believe there’s such a thing as a hangover.”
Maybe just getting out of Port St. Lucie is the first step toward recovery. The previous few days provided a bumpy ride to the finish line, with Matt Harvey’s health scare shaking up the team before the gag-infested media coverage of the bladder issue infuriated Harvey and prompted him to go silent.
Eventually, this, too, will blow over. But being around the Mets, it feels as if the expectations are squeezing a bit harder than what the Cubs have dealt with during a placid Arizona spring — and Maddon’s crew is the team sitting on a 107-year title drought.
“Joe says it a lot: Pressure is a privilege,” said Bryant, the 2015 Rookie of the Year. As for the favorite tag, he added, “Honestly, we’re not really thinking that far in the future.”
As the defending NL champs, the Mets don’t have the luxury of such responses. The only option after getting to the World Series is winning it the next year. And there’s little doubt the Cubs will be waiting to block that from happening, as much as Maddon tries to take all this in stride.
“To have other people think you’re favored to win the last game of the season — wonderful,” Maddon said. “Somebody’s got to be that team. But I don’t process it that way at all. I think we’re good. I think our guys think we’re good, which I like.”
Here in Vegas, they’re not the only ones. The Mets just need to be better. Again.