LOS ANGELES — When the Cubs poached Joe Maddon, they knew they were getting more than just a manager. All throughout a season of raised expectations, he has taken on the additional roles of team shrink and spokesman.
It is his reassuring voice that a skittish fan base has heard more than anyone else’s during their 103-win regular season. It is his comforting words that his players quote in their few moments of adversity.
After Tuesday’s 6-0 loss to the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLCS, slugging third baseman Kris Bryant found himself turning a late broken-bat single by Anthony Rizzo into a rallying point.
“That’s the kind of thing that you see sparks a team,” Bryant said, a statement that in its positivity was purely Maddon-esque.
Indeed, Maddon has steadfastly ignored the 1,000-pound billy goat in the room, refusing to alter his message of calm. Even with the Cubs hitting .185 in the postseason — and just .161 in the NLCS — he showed that unyielding devotion to assurance once more. He refused to make major changes to his lineup. And in Game 4 on Wednesday night, it paid off.
The Cubs ended a streak of 21 consecutive scoreless innings with a four-run outburst in the fourth, which began and ended with two of his team’s coldest hitters. Ben Zobrist, hitting .154, bunted his way aboard against Dodgers lefty Julio Urias to start the uprising.
Shortstop Addison Russell ended it, bashing a two-run homer to right-center, just his second hit of the postseason. Both could have been benched, justifiably. Maddon refused, despite the stakes.
Rizzo added a solo shot to right centerfield in the top of the fifth.
For the first time in the playoffs, the Cubs found themselves playing from behind. They entered Wednesday’s game trailing this best-of-seven series 2-1. It is the closest they have come to watching their dream season collapse beneath the weight of history and expectations. After all, the Cubs may be sitting on one of their best chances to win the World Series since 1908.
Yet, Maddon trusted that a turnaround was coming, even with scant evidence that it would happen.
“I can’t get over the top and take a trip to negative town right now just because we’ve had two tough days,” said Maddon, who watched the Cubs get shut out in Games 2 and 3. “I have a lot of faith and trust in our players. So let’s go out there and play today. We’ve got a good pitcher going. We’re playing our defense. I know our guys will be ready to go. But you just don’t want to really blow it up right now. I don’t.”
Maddon has shied away from anything more than moving his pieces around.
Russell entered Game 4 just 1-for-24 in the postseason. Until his homer, he had yet to record a hit in three games during this NLCS. The night before, he was pulled for a pinch-hitter, an acknowledgment of his struggles.
Versatility allows the Cubs alternatives. It is one of their strengths. For instance, Maddon could easily have moved the slick-fielding Javier Baez to short, replacing Russell in the lineup.
Yet, with one timely swing, Russell made good on the show of confidence. As he rounded the bases, he screamed and pumped his fist. He floated home, freed of the mental burden he had been carrying throughout October. “We have to score more runs,” Maddon said before the game. “But it’s not his fault we’re not scoring runs. We have some really capable offensive players, and I’d hate to just lay it on one or two guys.”
Again, Maddon had treated a managerial decision with the sensitivity of a therapist, and the touch of a communicator. He avoided laying the struggles of a team on one play. Again, he reaped the rewards.