Using a two-RBI single from Mike Baxter and an eighth inning sacrifice fly from Adron Chambers, the Chicago Cubs finally broke into the win column in Cactus League play on Wednesday as they beat the Los Angeles Dodgers by a score of 4-3 at Sloan Park.
The result leaves the Cubs with a 1-6 record so far in the spring, good for dead last in the Cactus League and in last place overall in baseball. The team has been outscored by a 47-32 margin in those seven games, and their 32 runs scored rank as the second-worst offensive output of any team training in Arizona this spring.
Those numbers by themselves don’t mean much, but there is something that’s bothering manager Joe Maddon: a lack of fundamentals.
“We’re not good at fundamentals in the game,” Maddon said before Wednesday’s game. “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.”
Maddon was displeased with the team after a Tuesday loss to the Cleveland Indians. The Cubs committed four errors in the game, including two on balls hit to the outfield, and the manager called out his team for a lack of focus and intensity in the game. Everyone on the diamond looked shaky from Arismendy Alcantara in center field to Kris Bryant at third base, and Maddon made sure that the team knew that he was mad.
“Physical mistakes are fine,” he said. “The mental mistakes will kill you. Physical mistakes are part of this game. Mental mistakes have no part in this game.”
Wednesday’s game seemed to show that the team understood Maddon’s message and put it into practice. Jon Lester, throwing his second Cactus League start, looked crisp and efficient on the mound, scattering three hits and striking out two batters in three scoreless innings of work. Starlin Castro looked methodical and deliberate at shortstop, firing perfect strikes to Anthony Rizzo at first base on a couple of tough ground balls. Rizzo himself had a nice day at the plate despite a 1-for-3 day in the box score, scorching all three balls that he hit on the day.
That emphasis on fundamentals isn’t the only thing going on with the Cubs over the past few days. On Tuesday, the team got four home runs in the aforementioned loss to the Indians, including a set of three homers in a row from Jorge Soler, Javier Baez (his first hit of the spring), and Kris Bryant. The home run that Wellington Castillo hit later in the game was a tape-measure shot as well, but his celebration at the plate afterward (he stood and watched the ball travel over the fence) stuck in Maddon’s craw.
“It’s act like you’ve done it before and you can do it again,” he told the media after the game. “The touchdown celebration, all that stuff, pounding your chest after dunking a basketball, all this stuff that’s become part of today’s generation of athletes – whether you agree with it being right or wrong doesn’t matter. I would just prefer that our guys would act like they’ve done it before and that they’re going to do it again.”
Between the extra emphasis on fundamentals and the displeasure over Castillo’s celebration, Maddon is clearly trying to effect cultural change in the Cubs’ clubhouse and focus their attention on the difficult task of making a leap forward as a team. His mantra of “Respect 90” may come across as something to slap on a t-shirt and focus on for just a few days in spring training, but the reality is that Maddon is convinced that teaching his players to value their status as big leaguers and to play every game as hard as possible is what’s necessary for the team to get to the next level.