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What are Cubs playing for in second half? Joe Maddon’s job, for starters

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CHICAGO — Not long after the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, Theo Epstein dismissed criticism of manager Joe Maddon for another time. When it came down to winning a championship, the team president opined that only the result mattered — not the process nor any of the controversial decision-making by the man in the dugout.

The Cubs should view Maddon’s next 72 games in the same manner. No matter how sloppy his team has played, no matter how much criticism he may be due at the moment, if the Cubs win their dogfight of a division, Maddon should be rewarded.

But if his team continues its current style of play while ceding the National League Central, which Chicago leads by a mere half-game as the second half begins, Maddon should suffer the consequences.

As much as the Cubs are in it together, the final half-season of Maddon’s five-year contract will be a referendum on his current managerial style. That won’t take anything away from what he has accomplished — it just means he’ll join a long list of former Cubs managers who never made it past half a decade on the job. The only difference is Maddon will have a championship on his resume. The others don’t.

Without saying it in as many words, Maddon’s boss put the spotlight firmly on the manager in his pre-All-Star break comments.

“The sloppiness has surprised all of us,” Epstein said last weekend of the 47-43 Cubs. “For many years, when we’re at our best, we’re playing alert, focused, prepared, heads-up baseball. … We can’t put our finger on why. It’s not anyone’s fault, per se. We have to shake that if we want to get where we want to go.”

You’re not out on a limb if you think being prepared and focused falls under the purview of the manager.

There was more.

“This group has been together a long time, so sometimes the same message isn’t as effective and it’s incumbent on all of us to find, whether it’s transactional, finding different combinations or as a coaching staff, giving a different message to get the most of what we’re looking for,” Epstein continued. “It’s not easy. The last calendar year, we haven’t really gotten the results in terms of the way we’re playing, the way we’re facing challenges.”

Epstein was quick to include the front office in the “collective” issues the Cubs possess, but potentially delivering a stale message falls squarely on the manager. However, make no mistake, the front office is the main culprit when it comes to the erosion of talent and depth on the team and in the organization. That, coupled with the ascension of other teams in the division, is why the Cubs are in a five-way NL Central battle.

It also doesn’t help matters that the team’s position-player core — which helped win a World Series — hasn’t reached its potential. The organization attempted to engage with its millennial group during the winter, but the problems still exist. According to sources familiar with the situation, a recent players-only meeting — as well as a scheduled one held by Maddon — again tried to address the issues among those players and their inability to max out as a unit.

But all of that is for another day. As the saying goes, you can’t fire 25 guys — or in this case, 12 position players — and let’s face it, general manager Jed Hoyer isn’t on Epstein’s hot seat. Maddon is. So, yes, the team is in this “collectively,” but if/when it comes time to make a major change, we all know where the ax will fall.

“We’re not playing in a way that is representative of who we are,” Epstein said. “It’s gone on for a while. We’re all looking for answers. We’re all looking for every lever we can pull to get this going in the right direction.”

Maddon delivered a similar message when he closed the doors for his annual midseason team meeting during the Cubs’ most recent road series, in Pittsburgh.

“I talked to them about what I thought we needed to get better at, but then I also offered some solutions,” Maddon said afterward. “Sometimes you just get off track a little bit. I thought I gave what I thought were the issues and then some solutions.”

And there is no problem too inconsequential, not when the top and bottom of the division are separated by 4½ games and not after last season’s division title was decided by a one-game playoff.

Additionally, the Cubs are among the league leaders in total number of one-run affairs, yet they are just 12-15 in those games. Just turn that record around and how much better would the team and its fans feel about the first half?

So now it’s our turn. Here are some of the biggest issues the Cubs are facing and some potential fixes that the manager can control:

The Cubs have been reckless on the bases.

The Cubs have made the most outs (37) on the basepaths in all of baseball (excluding pickoffs, force outs and being caught stealing.)

Included in that ugly stat is 13 outs made at home and 10 more at third base. Those rank first and second, respectively, among the 30 teams. So the Cubs were within 90 feet — or less — of scoring 23 more times. How would scoring those runs translate in the win/loss column?

And lest you think that’s the price of being an aggressive team, the price is too steep: The Cubs have a negative runs-above-average rating based on their baserunning, which ranks in the bottom third of the league, according to FanGraphs. While the team is often praised for its first-to-third prowess, that’s a product of their hitters going to right field as much as anything else. For example, their right-handed batters rank third in opposite-field hits this season.

So why can’t the Cubs be smart and aggressive on the basepaths? Here’s Maddon’s philosophy, which he has stated many times over the years:

“You have to be careful when talking to the guys, when you get too harsh about it, then all of a sudden they become station-to-station,” Maddon said. “That’s not what we’re looking for. When a guy makes a mistake on the bases, I prefer just talking to him about it. … I like aggressive baserunning. I want us to look for the extra base, but you don’t want to make foolish outs on the bases.”

Of course, no one wants to make bad outs on the bases. When a team continually does so, isn’t it incumbent on the manager to put a stop to it? Maddon has been here before. In his first spring training with the Cubs, in 2015, he told his players he wanted them to be aggressive on the basepaths. Perhaps in an effort to impress their new manager, players ran wild on the bases early in spring games. Eventually, Maddon laid down the law.

“We’re not good at fundamentals in the game,” Maddon said after his team began that spring 0-6-1. “We have not done the little things right that permit you to win. The wins will happen if we get the fundamentals. The wins will never happen if you don’t get the fundamentals.”

It was one of the more stern moments in Maddon’s time in Chicago — and it came mere weeks into his tenure. The Cubs could use some of that Maddon now. More than anything, the team needs to realize how much the game has changed since 2015. In a day and age when everyone is hitting home runs, is it really worth it to potentially eliminate a baserunner while adding an out to your inning, taking away a chance at a multi-run homer? The answer is no, and Maddon should act accordingly. Station-to-station isn’t all that bad in 2019.

“We’re not good enough to give four outs or make careless mistakes on the basepaths,” Epstein said.

The Cubs don’t have their best on-base guys at the top of the lineup.

Maddon changed up his lineup recently, but other than batting Kris Bryant third — where he’s more comfortable — it still doesn’t feel right. Yes, the Cubs won two games with Kyle Schwarber hitting leadoff and Javy Baez second, but that streak ended quickly in the Cubs’ last game before the break, a 3-1 loss to the White Sox.

“We’re not playing in a way that is representative of who we are. It’s gone on for a while. We’re all looking for answers.”

Cubs president Theo Epstein

How many teams, let alone contenders, begin games with a .320 on-base guy followed by a .324 player? Moving Bryant to third was a smart move. It needs to be followed up by putting on-base threats in front of him. That could be anyone from Anthony Rizzo or even catcher Willson Contreras. Since Bryant himself is an on-base machine, Baez should bat fourth or fifth to clean up all those guys who are good at getting on.

On a team that hits just .249 with runners in scoring position, why would a .317 hitter in that category hit second? In Maddon’s defense, he said he wasn’t married to the lineup, but the sooner he changes it, the better.

Side note: It wouldn’t hurt if the front office found a better on-base threat from outside the organization. While many are focused on Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield, he’ll carry a hefty price tag. A player like Toronto Blue Jays infielder Eric Sogard won’t. The Cubs were interested in him during the offseason, according to sources, but signed Daniel Descalso instead. Sogard has a .372 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot this season after signing a minor league deal this past winter. He’d be worth a flier and shouldn’t cost nearly as much as Merrifield.

The Cubs have the second-worst fielding percentage in the NL.

We all know fielding percentage can be a misleading stat, but the Cubs have made way too many sloppy errors — not to mention the mental mistakes as well. And sometimes the mental ones lead to physical ones. Here’s Epstein’s wish for the second half:

“Playing good baseball, playing heads-up baseball, eliminating some of the sloppiness. Playing in a way all the guys can be proud of. If we start playing that way, the results will take care of themselves.”

This is and should be a Maddon strength: creating an environment where players can just play without feeling the pressure to do too much. It’s the only answer in regards to talented players when it comes to the sloppiness. Trying to make two outs instead of one, overthrowing a cutoff man, making outs on the basepaths. These are traits of players who are pressing. That’s on the manager to relieve.

“We’re also engaged with Joe and the coaching staff, trying to find ways to get more out of this group and play better,” Epstein said.

The shaky bullpen hasn’t been helped by usage decisions.

Like any manager, Maddon is often second-guessed for his bullpen decisions, but his issues don’t involve when to pull a starter and when not to — a popular topic on social media and sports talk radio. All managers are rolling the dice with those decisions. It’s more important to understand who his best relievers are and deploy them accordingly. The Cubs have no margin for error here.

For example, Maddon’s misuse of righty Brandon Kintzler has cost the team games. Kintzler’s performance across all situations has been fantastic, leading to a 1.98 ERA while stranding inherited runners 91% of the time. But until somewhat recently, he has been used as just another reliever — pitching in low-leverage situations just as often as Brad Brach, who has a 6.11 ERA.

Maddon may claim he’s put Kintzler in situations to succeed, but he doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing when to use a reliever who is pitching that well, especially considering his bullpen isn’t as deep as it once was. Making sure his top relievers are available, on as many days as the Cubs need them, should be a priority for Maddon in the second half.

It all comes down to Joe.

The front office can claim they’re all in it together, but how much can they really do? They aren’t going to meddle inside the clubhouse. Hoyer and Epstein know better than to approach a player about his poor play. They’ll do that with the coaches, but it’s up to the manager to right the ship.

Of course, there are other factors at play here, as the times the Cubs have played their worst baseball in recent years are when they’ve been forced to play the most. Even in their championship 2016 season, the Cubs stunk up the place during a stretch of 24 games without a day off from June 17 to July 10. Late last season, they reported to the park 30 consecutive days, and they subsequently squandered their division lead. These are facts, not opinions.

This season, the Cubs just finished a string of 50 games in 52 days, which included 29 games in June. They were the only National League team to play that many. A lighter schedule — the Cubs open the second half at home with nine games in 10 days, for example — should help make Maddon’s job easier.

But he has to do the rest, beginning with the understanding that he’s not leading the 2016 Cubs. As Epstein noted, the team just isn’t good enough to overcome sloppy play. Armed with that information, Maddon needs to manage them accordingly.

His job depends on it.

Otherwise, the end will come just a few floors above his new restaurant, Maddon’s Post, where Epstein and Hoyer’s offices sit. They’ll eventually have a decision to make on Maddon. He needs to make it a harder one. He has 72 games to do it.

“If we start playing our style of baseball, a heads-up style of baseball that we play when we’re at our best, then things should take care of themselves,” Epstein said.

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Cervelli (3 hits, 3 RBIs) sparks Braves in debut

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NEW YORK — Newly signed Francisco Cervelli had three hits and three RBIs in his Atlanta debut, and the Braves beat the New York Mets 9-5 on Saturday night for their seventh straight victory.

The veteran catcher, released Thursday by Pittsburgh, signed with the first-place Braves earlier Saturday to help fill in with Brian McCann on the injured list.

After recovering from yet another concussion, Cervelli played his first major league game since May 25. The veteran backstop stroked a two-run double on the second pitch he saw for a 2-0 lead in the second inning.

“I was playing like a little kid,” Cervelli said. “That’s all that matters, man. From now on, just enjoy every game, every opportunity, and do what I have to do.”

He singled his next time up and added an RBI double to deep center in the ninth.

“Hasn’t played in three months, comes out and gets three knocks. Just makes it look that easy,” Billy Hamilton, another recent Braves addition, said.

From his knees, Cervelli also threw out Amed Rosario trying to steal second in a tie game in the seventh.

“He was excited about getting here — and it showed,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

About two hours before the game, Cervelli said he was still waiting for his catching equipment to arrive at Citi Field.

Atlanta will pay Cervelli $110,403, a prorated portion of the $555,000 major league minimum. That is offset against his $11.5 million salary in the final season of the $31 million, three-year contract with Pittsburgh that he was released from.

Cervelli, 33, joined the Braves at Citi Field and batted seventh against Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler. Snitker said Cervelli will split playing time with Tyler Flowers behind the plate and likely remain with the club when McCann returns because by then rosters will have expanded in September.

Cervelli has dealt with multiple concussions this season and batted .193 with one home run and five RBIs in 34 games for the Pirates. He recently completed a minor league rehab assignment that began Aug. 11 at Double-A Altoona in the Pittsburgh organization. He played one game there and then caught six games at Triple-A Indianapolis.

“I’m not a little kid anymore, so I kind of know exactly what I need and how many games,” Cervelli said before Saturday’s game. “I’ve been working so hard besides the game for a long time to get back at my best.”

Cervelli acknowledged that two months ago, he was a little jittery about catching again after his most recent concussion in May. A report suggested he didn’t plan to go back behind the plate, but Cervelli insisted he didn’t say that — someone else did.

After working out in the infield, he moved back to catcher in the minors. He said he was bored at other positions and threw away his infield glove.

“I’m not a baseball player. I’m a catcher,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 17 years and that’s all I’m going to do. And, I like to be behind the plate. It sounds crazy, but I like to get hit and do my thing. So, I’m here now.”

He said he quietly underwent a new therapy with a new doctor and is feeling good.

“I put everything I had,” said Cervelli, the Pirates’ Opening Day catcher each of the past five years.

Cervelli began the night a .269 career hitter with 36 home runs and 261 RBIs in 700 major league games. His .362 on-base percentage in 450 games with Pittsburgh was second among big league catchers during that span to San Francisco’s Buster Posey (.368).

To make roster room for Cervelli, the Braves optioned catcher Alex Jackson to Triple-A Gwinnett and transferred left-hander Grant Dayton to the 60-day injured list.

Cervelli, from Venezuela, spent the first seven years of his career with the New York Yankees and played in 42 games for the 2009 World Series champions.

“I feel like a lucky man,” he said. “Just the fact that I went to Triple-A and played baseball. It doesn’t matter what it is. I played there like a kid again, and now I feel more grateful just to get picked up by a team who is in first place and they like to win. That’s the whole idea.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Indians’ Ramirez fractures bone in hand, on IL

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Cleveland Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez has been diagnosed with a fractured hamate bone in his right hand and has been placed on the injured list, the team announced Sunday.

Ramirez, a two-time All-Star, had an MRI after he exited in the first inning of Saturday’s game against Kansas City after fouling off a pitch.

“We’re really sad because Jose is a happy guy and you guys know that we definitely need him,” said teammate Franmil Reyes after Cleveland’s 4-2 win.

“We need his defense, we need his offense, and he’s a great guy. It seemed like he was in a lot of pain. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope everything is good.”

Indians manager Terry Francona said Ramirez has been dealing with a sore wrist, but the injury occurred in a different area of the joint. The 26-year-old was not wearing a protective brace in the clubhouse and did not speak with the media.

Ramirez is batting .254 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs in 126 games. Utilityman Mike Freeman replaced him and had two hits and an RBI.

In a corresponding move, the Indians called up infielder Yu Chang from Triple-A Columbus.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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‘I get myself in trouble’ — Kenley Jansen adapts to his suddenly hittable cutter

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LOS ANGELES — It was the ninth inning, his Los Angeles Dodgers were leading by a run, and Kenley Jansen reared back and overmatched Randal Grichuk with three consecutive cutters on Wednesday night. The turn of events emboldened Jansen, instantly bringing him back to another time, when his cutter was virtually unhittable and secondary pitches were often unnecessary.

“F— it, it’s here,” Jansen thought. “Let’s go.”

Six of Jansen’s next eight pitches were, predictably, cutters. The last of those — traveling 93 mph, tailing middle-in — was sent well over the right-field fence for a game-tying home run by Toronto Blue Jays slugger Rowdy Tellez, handing Jansen another blown save in what has become another turbulent season.

Jansen was serenaded by boos as he retreated to the home dugout. Moments later, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was pushing against the idea of a change at closer. The following afternoon, Jansen was lamenting his mindset. The right-hander knows the cutter is no longer untouchable, and he understands the need to incorporate his slider and fastball more frequently — and yet sometimes he just can’t help himself.

“Sometimes I get myself in trouble, because when I blow hitters out like that with a few pitches, it’s like, ‘Aw, s—, I got it today,'” Jansen said. “And it’s like, ‘Hey, use your mind.’ It gave me all the signs to change yesterday, and I didn’t do it. You know what? It’s OK. It’s a mistake, you learn from it, let’s go. No excuses, man. No excuses from me. And I’m not gonna lose confidence, at all, in myself.”

But the fan base might be starting to lose confidence, an apprehension rooted in part by the Dodgers’ relative inactivity before the July 31 trade deadline. The first-place Dodgers never acquired another dominant, late-inning reliever, placing increasingly more pressure on Jansen, who has at times wavered.

His ERA, despite a somewhat encouraging 21-pitch save in Saturday’s victory over the New York Yankees, stands at a career-high 3.62. His six blown saves this season are topped by just five other relievers, only one of whom is a current closer. From 2011 to 2017, opponents slugged .315 off Jansen’s cutter, a rate that fell 103 points below the major league average on all pitches. In 2018, it rose to .403. This year, it’s .465. The Dodgers want Jansen to incorporate other pitches and Jansen wants to comply, but the transition has proved difficult.

“I’ve never been great,” Roberts said, “so when you’re talking about somebody who has always been great, with one specific pitch, and when they know it’s coming and to still not hit it, and to have to go through that transition — it’s a transition. I think he’s understanding that you can be just as effective as you have been in the past, but sequencing is a part of that process.”

The Dodgers met with Jansen late into Wednesday night in part to emphasize that point. Jansen, 31, was apologetic for not straying from his cutter, an issue that has materialized in multiple ninth innings this season. The meeting took place, Jansen said, because he is “sick and tired of just being angry,” the result of experiencing failure and confronting transition for the first time in his 10-year career.

“You just have to clear your mind, love the game again,” Jansen said. “I have love for the game. Be happy. Be happy when you go out there. And perform. Once I do that, man, it’s gonna be fun again.”

Jansen threw his cutter between 84% and 93% of the time each season from 2010 to 2018. This year, its usage is down to 76%. Over the past two months, it’s down to 65%. The velocity on the pitch has dropped a couple of ticks, down to 92 mph. But its effectiveness lies in its late life, which has at times been compromised by inconsistencies in Jansen’s delivery. Over the past three years, the pitch value on Jansen’s cutter, according to Pitch Info Solutions research, has dropped from 20.8 to 9.4 to minus-0.2.

Pedro Baez, continually booed before reemerging as a valuable weapon last season, and Joe Kelly, who has recovered from a brutal start to the 2019 season, came to the forefront of Jansen’s mind last week.

“They went through the same thing that I went through,” Jansen said, “and look at them.”

So, too, did Clayton Kershaw, who has found a way to remain a legitimate Cy Young contender despite pitching with a fastball that he often struggles to dial up to 90 mph.

“It’s a game of adjustments,” Jansen said, “and I can still be so damn good if I make the adjustments. I just gotta be a little more smart.”

Jansen resides at the heart of the Dodgers’ chances of capturing their first World Series title since 1988. In retrospect, the 2017 World Series, when he failed to close out two games, might have marked the beginning of a subtle decline. In a macro sense, Jansen has not been the same since, though a hamstring injury late last spring and an irregular heartbeat late last summer have certainly contributed. Jansen was adamant in saying that his inner belief has not wavered. He vowed to remain upbeat, but also to learn from past failures.

“I trust all my pitches — use them,” Jansen said. “The game will tell you when you have to change — be aware of it.”

Roberts believed Jansen’s cutters were well executed Wednesday — even the one that resulted in a tied game — but also said he “went to the well too many times,” noting that Jansen should have incorporated sliders into the Tellez at-bat. Asked the following day if he believes Jansen can be dominant again if he sequences adequately, Roberts answered sternly.

“I have no doubt,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind.”

Two days later, Roberts experienced temporary validation. The Yankees loaded the bases with one out in the ninth on three well-placed grounders, but Jansen recorded back-to-back strikeouts of Mike Tauchman and Gary Sanchez to preserve a 2-1 lead and capture his 27th save. Jansen threw 11 cutters in the inning, but also seven fastballs and three sliders. Roberts said “the sequencing was better.”

Max Muncy, standing almost directly behind Jansen while shifted up the middle as the second baseman, saw Jansen reach the mid-90s with his cutter on the final two pitches and found them to be “really, really sharp.”

“If we can find a way to get that going,” Muncy said, “we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

Jansen is quick to acknowledge the advancements of his sport and why relying on only one pitch is becoming imprudent. He welcomed the recent boos from the home crowd, but he vowed to change the narrative.

“Give me the tough love,” he said. “I’ll make sure you love me again.”

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