BALTIMORE — Jake Arrieta might see it as a coincidence. Joe Maddon could make a case that it’s by design. Whatever it is, the Chicago Cubs have dominated their opposition coming out of the All-Star break the past two years, and they’re off to an even better start this time around, outscoring the Orioles 19-11 over their first two games of the second half.
Bottom line: Maddon is ready to push those post-All-Star break buttons once again.
“We do have to push it a little bit,” he said before Saturday’s 10-3 win. “The first half, I was concerned about doing that too early. And I know [people might say], ‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t you want to?’ Because the guys were fatigued from the last two years, and I thought if you get the whip out too soon, you will be done by the middle of August.
“That’s my experience, and I absolutely believe that to be true. What proof do I have? Nothing except I’ve done it before.”
He might have a point, as the Cubs got a reset this past week. Slumping players got away from the game, while management worked to get them a new pitcher, Jose Quintana, who will debut Sunday. Saturday’s win was about a suddenly dynamic offense and a confident starter who pitched into the seventh inning. Is Arrieta’s mojo returning?
“I joke with my friends and kind of tell them how I’m going to finish the second half,” said the free-agent-to-be. “I don’t know if I’ll verbalize that to you guys. I’m very confident.”
It’s safe to assume Arrieta thinks he’ll put up some big numbers in the final months of 2017. If they’re anything like those of his second half of 2015, then you can count the Cubs back in the pennant race — and Arrieta can start counting his money as he prepares to test the market. In fact, the Cubs are back in the race now even though the first-place Milwaukee Brewers keep winning.
The good news is the wild card is in play, as the Colorado Rockies are in free fall and Arizona isn’t playing much better. The Cubs trail both the Brewers and the second wild-card spot by 5.5 games. A little rest might have helped their cause more than others.
“There’s a lot to be said for the timing of the All-Star break based on the struggles we’ve had, the ups and downs,” Arrieta said. “It seems to come at the right time. For us, it’s played out the right way the past couple years. We hope the same thing happens this year.”
Is it because Maddon has timed it this way? Don’t dismiss the strategy. Not that he can predict results one way or another, but he understands the vibe of the Cubs more than most give him credit for.
“First day [after the break] was kind of businesslike,” Maddon said. “Today was more fun. That’s what I’m waiting to see or hear.
“Right now, my sense is they’re in pretty good order right now. They’re starting to catch a second wind. Now is the time to push it a little bit.”
If the first two games are any indication, the Cubs seemingly added a few hitters during the break along with Quintana. Shortstop Addison Russell has a home run in each game and is hitting the ball with authority again. He’s been missing in action for most of the season.
Catcher Willson Contreras has taken to the cleanup spot, hitting over .320 in that position in the order, while Jason Heyward is on time with every swing he takes, including a bases-loaded triple on Saturday. He already sees the difference in the Cubs’ young hitters.
“I would say so,” Heyward said. “Just like a fresh start. Some time away and give yourself some space.”
Over the past two days, Kyle Schwarber has homered, Russell has two and Albert Almora Jr. went deep … as did Heyward and Anthony Rizzo. That’s the bulk of the Cubs’ young core. Bad Baltimore pitching or not, it’s a confidence boost that’s coming at exactly the right time for the Cubs.
“Addy’s at-bats have been spectacular,” Maddon said. “They really have. I love Willson’s two-out, two-strike double down the right-field line to score a run. … He’s not fouling his pitch off. He’s not missing it right now. A lot of these guys are using the whole field, and he is, too.”
Maddon even made a point of saying he usually waits until Aug. 1 to really start his push. The trade deadline will have come and gone, and he believes other teams will wilt under the August heat and in the fifth month of the season. Perhaps the push is coming early this year, considering the ground the Cubs need to cover.
“It’s kind of the day you want to get out there and push it,” he said. “And make sure everyone plays so when you do need them, they’re ready to contribute.”
If the Cubs fall flat, then Maddon’s strategy will be scrutinized. But if it works, then it further cements his legacy as a manager who can read his team. The deck was stacked against him in the first half in a lot of ways — short offseason, injuries and a tough schedule hurt — but the tide could be turning. A new pitcher, a potentially revitalized incumbent one and 19 runs in two games will do that to you. Are the Cubs starting to make their move?
“We can’t keep putting it off,” Maddon said.