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Maddon’s fate riding on season’s finish

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon may need a big finish to the season to save his job. He is in the last year of a 5-year deal, and has not received an extension.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon may need a big finish to the season to save his job. He is in the last year of a 5-year deal, and has not received an extension.

What would Cubs life be like without Joe Maddon?

Duller, for sure.

There are few managers left who understand one of their responsibilities is to provide a reason for fans to stay interested in the team. Lou Piniella liked to tell the story of former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner asking him to mix it up with umpires so the team could make the back page of the tabloids.

Baseball is entertainment. Fans are customers. The more interest in the team, the more customers pay to get in. As much as any player on the Cubs, Maddon has been the team’s biggest promoter, spreading platitudes from his daily soap box in the dugout or behind a podium.

He’s as ubiquitous as the guy in the Victory Car Wreckers commercial, typically seen in the daily sports segment on the 10 o’clock news, praising the win or explaining the loss. And, like that poor sap in the vintage ad, Maddon might be left standing with the car door on the ground if the Cubs don’t make the postseason.

The Cubs and Maddon agreed at the general managers meetings in November to table negotiations over a contract extension until after the season.

It didn’t mean the Cubs don’t like him or want him back, or that Maddon doesn’t want to return for a few more years.

Agent Alan Nero insisted it had nothing to do with money.

“The issue really comes down to where the Cubs are going after next year, and that’s going to be decisions that aren’t about Joe,” Nero said that day in California.

So what was the problem with the manager who helped end the championship drought and took the team to the postseason 4 straight years for the first time in franchise history?

No one would say, though Maddon agreed to be more communicative with his millennial players, per Theo Epstein’s request.

Whatever the reason, the decision set the stage for what most perceived was a win-or-bust season for Maddon. The only question was whether the Cubs would have to get to the World Series or even win it to not qualify for “bust.”

So far, the season has been a success, if not the kind of success fans have grown accustomed to since Maddon’s arrival in 2015. The Cubs are in first place in the National League Central with a 2-game lead pver the rival Cardinals and a 2½-game lead over the Brewers – their chief protagonist the last 3 years – going into Tuesday.

At this point in ’15, the Cubs were in the midst of a nine-game winning streak that began with a four-game sweep of the Giants at Wrigley Field. That series was seen as a clear turning point, and the Cubs went on to win the second NL wild-card spot and ride a wave of emotion until crashing in the National League Championship Series.

This season has yet to reach such a moment, mostly because the Cubs have yet to go on a prolonged winning stretch, with road games serving as an overwhelming obstacle. They were 23-36 away from Wrigley Field after Tuesday’s loss in Philadelphia.

It has been Maddon’s most perplexing challenge in his 5 years in Chicago, and could lead to his exit if the Cubs can’t overcome it.

This is a talented and well-paid team built to win over the long haul. And with the front office continuing to hand Maddon valuable add-ons, such as Craig Kimbrel, Nicholas Castellanos and Jonathan Lucroy, there will be no excuses to lean on if they don’t win the division.

If they were even halfway decent on the road, the Cubs would have a comfortable lead and could rest pitchers for October. Until they have a winning trip, the issue will dog them. Players even acknowledged that Friday as they stood in front of the white, pinstriped home jerseys they brought on the trip to remind them of home.

There is optimism, based on the “Castellanos effect” and the overall performance of the rotation, which ranked sixth in the majors through Friday with a 3.82 ERA in the second half. Take away Jon Lester’s last two starts, in which he allowed 14 earned runs over nine combined innings, and it’s a 3.27 ERA.

Even Yu Darvish has become mostly dependable, in spite of what he described as the “three [bleeping] home runs” he served up in Friday’s loss.

Lester called himself the “weakest link” of the staff after last Tuesday’s drubbing by the Athletics. He gave up a career-high 11 runs (nine earned), including eight in the second inning, when normally a manager would’ve yanked a starter who was getting his hat handed to him. Lester’s ERA over his last four starts is 7.36.

Still, if Lester is your weakest leak, you’re probably in good position. He has done this before and come out of it, so no worries yet.

Of course, Kyle Hendricks’ implosion Saturday – he allowed seven earned runs on a career-high 12 hits in 2+ innings against the Reds – won’t help the starters’ second-half ERA. In their last three combined starts, Hendricks, Lester and Cole Hamels have a combined 18.62 ERA.

The Cubs lineup is longer with Castellanos in the No. 2 hole, and Kris Bryant should get more RBI opportunities batting behind him instead of Kyle Schwarber, one of five Cubs players with 11 or more games leading off this year.

But Jason Heyward is hitting .159 with a .227 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot, and .211 with a .302 OBP since July 31, when Maddon asked him to fill the season-long hole.

Heyward in turn asked Maddon to be “patient” and “not to move me out of there if it doesn’t go perfect right away.”

Maddon will have more issues to address over the final 7 weeks, including how to fit Ben Zobrist into the mix, respecting the comeback while factoring in his age (38) and downtime since his last major-league game on May 6. Epstein said everyone wants a “happy ending” for Zobrist, but this is uncharted territory for Zobrist and the Cubs.

We don’t know how this season will end for Maddon or the Cubs, whether agony or ecstasy will define them in October.

But we do know one thing:

It won’t be dull.

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