Defusing anticipation is easy for Joe Maddon.
“It’s Monday,” he said.
The Chicago Cubs’ manager, steeped in adventurous and numeric approaches to managing, went to the phrase so many abhor. Yes, it was a Monday, the dreaded day that meant the weekend has ended and a fresh 40-hour week was ahead. Monday. Blah.
To many others, Monday carried some weight. It was the beginning of a three-game series between the two best teams in the National League, the Cubs and the Washington Nationals, one that comes after the first four-game series between the teams produced a Chicago sweep. Yet Maddon found a new to say no big deal, it’s just one day at a time.
“People always talk about stuff like that,” Maddon said. “I thought the series with Philadelphia and Atlanta was big. The way I look at it is every game counts as one. Everybody wants to apply more weight to different moments.”
Maddon is engaging, even when twisting a cliche. It’s something he has in common with the man who used to run the Cubs and now heads up the Nationals, Dusty Baker. The NL’s best teams are being led by two large-personality managers. One man wears wristbands with a picture of himself on them. The other’s facial silhouette is across T-shirts his players walk around in, including one version with the in-depth advice, “Try not to suck,” printed on it.
They acknowledge “the book,” but don’t necessarily abide by it. That can be a touchy subject and a laudatory space.
Baker arrived in Washington with a reputation for riding pitchers hard; not consulting, or at least following, matchup math at all times; and having a positive touch that eludes so many leaders. Maddon has been a swashbuckler since finally receiving a full-time managerial job on Nov. 15, 2005, when he took command of the wayward Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His light-hearted methods we bolstered by deep analysis of numbers. Each has a personal style that was anything but establishment.
Cubs catcher David Ross has played for both.
“Very laid-back,” Ross said of the duo. ” Very carefree when it comes to rules and policing stuff that really doesn’t matter. It’s nice to have a manager that kind of lets you be you. They’re not trying to put you in a box and be a certain type of player. I think Joe and Dusty do a great job of letting the players play. … I think sometimes in this game, managers and organizations try to make guys a certain way. They take what they have, put that talent out on the field and let them play. They do a good job of keeping things loose.”
Discussing prior reputations with Baker can be more tenuous than with Maddon. Baker has paid attention to his past portrayal in the media. He challenges thought that suggests he’s a “non-traditional” manager, wanting to know exactly what that means.
“I’ve been mislabeled,” Baker said. “Most people don’t know what I do.”
What he’s done so far in Washington has worked. The Nationals entered Monday 15 games over .500, a mark last reached on Aug. 16, 2014. It’s only happened four times since baseball returned to Washington.
Yet, they are a clear second-fiddle in the NL — for now. The Cubs have been stomping through their season, entering Monday with a league-best 43 wins and a plus-162 run differential. The Nationals won 98 games in 2012. They finished with a plus-137 run differential.
“Joe’s got it going on over there in Chicago,” Baker said. “Right now, that’s his town.”
Baker had that once, too, which makes series against the Cubs more precious to him. The Cubs put together a four-game sweep in May when the teams first played. That series is remembered for the result. The incessant walking of Bryce Harper by Maddon also remains of note. Harper walked 13 times in the four games, including a record six times in one game. Maddon’s numbers told him what to do. He did not waver.
“Last time, we played them, man, it was just presented that way,” Maddon said. “I felt like it was the right thing to do. This [a month] later. It may be a whole different set of circumstances. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Baker was stirred one more time on the bland Monday, though the topic was not his managerial reputation. Instead, he was reminded of the earlier sweep, just another step in the Cubs’ plundering of the league through mid-June.
“You can give them the pennant right now, if you want to,” Baker said. “But we’ve still got to play.”
With Baker and Maddon involved, it at least will not be boring.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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