Energy and persistence conquer all things.
- Benjamin Franklin
In the case of the Cubs last night, energy and persistence conquered a poor middle relief performance, Joe West's ego, and a few youthful aggressive mistakes. As the mature beyond his years Addison Russell observed,
"They played this game just like little kids -- they had fun," Russell said. "I'm happy to be part of it."
You'll take the aggressive mistakes. Make the other team make a play and if they do, you tip your cap. These Cubs aren't sitting around and waiting for things to happen. They're making it happen.
That is a testament to their manager Joe Maddon, who has this team playing aggressively and believing they can win. Carrie Muskat wrote on that subject yesterday.
"Talking with [Chris] Coghlan, [we said] we wouldn't win that game last year or the year before,"Starlin Castro said. "We quit [last year]. If we were losing after seven innings, we quit. Now, we never quit. If we get extra innings, we play hard, we never quit."
To hear Castro talk that way is what people in the industry have been waiting for since he burst on the scene as a just-turned 20 year old prodigy in 2010. Nobody ever questioned the talent. One scout once told me he had Hanley Ramirez-type talent and the only thing holding him back was the mental part of the game.
Suddenly, something seems to have clicked with Castro. Maybe it's the threat of Addison Russell behind him. Maybe it's the focus that comes with being on a team that expects to win. Whatever it is, Castro seems to understand the time is now.
"This is the time I've waited for," Castro said. "I put in my mind, every day you can't be good, but you try 100 percent. This is the moment I've waited for in my life."
Maybe, just maybe, it also has something to do with Joe Maddon himself. Castro has played under several different managers. Castro was no doubt an immature 20 year old but, starting with the worn down, increasingly indifferent Lou Piniella and on to the mixed messages of Mike Quade and Dale Sveum, I don't think he ever got the support, communication style and instruction he so desperately needed. Rick Renteria seemed to reach him last year to a degree, but it may have taken the wake-up calls this offseason to really get him focused. And Maddon has been the perfect manager to ride that wave and take him to the next level. He has been very impressed with what he has seen so far.
"Right now, he is engaged. He is engaged on every pitch offensively and defensively. When he did not get it done early in the game, he was upset with himself. He's totally invested right now. It's really fun to watch."
Looking back at Quade and especially Sveum, they had the right idea. They weren't necessarily wrong about Castro's need to focus, or to grow up on and off the field. What they were unable to do was successfully communicate that with him. They went from one extreme -- trying to force him there with so-called tough love that often boiled over into public frustration, to throwing their hands in the air and doing nothing about it at all.
In contrast, Maddon seems to have a knack for guiding Castro where he needs to be rather than either trying to shove him there or letting him meander on his own.
That is the genius of Maddon's communication style. That is why he is such a good teacher. He helps you get there in such a subtle way, in a way that feels like you're doing it all on your own. It's a managing style that gets players taking ownership for their own development. That is how you get players fully invested in themselves -- and by extension, the team as well.
It isn't just Castro. His dramatic change simply illustrates the impact of Maddon's style better than any other player. Castro is sort of a barometer that measures the effectiveness of a manager's communication style. He is the gifted but somewhat lost student that's hard to reach and Maddon is that special teacher who gives him direction and lets him find his own way.
Like Castro, Anthony Rizzo has endured the length of what has often been a frustrating rebuilding process. We talked earlier about how the Cubs are starting to believe in themselves, on how the front office has carefully crafted a culture that encourages trust in themselves and in their teammates. Now, Rizzo is seeing the results of that slow but persistent process to change that losing culture that pervaded the clubhouse. The desired team-oriented culture -- and the confidence and trust that goes with it, are finally beginning to take hold.
"The strength of our lineup is that we believe anyone can do it at any time," Rizzo said. "We're really happy with the way we're grinding out at-bats early. We're making pitchers work -- that's what we want to do every time, every at-bat be stressful for the pitcher."
Or as Castro put it...
"When I saw Rizzo get on base and the double by Soler, I said, 'That guy has no chance with us today.'"
How's that for confidence and trust? How's that for swagger?
But words mean nothing if you can't back them up. Last night, the Cubs did just that...again. This one, though, seemed a bit more special.
"That's the best (rally) I've been a part of", said Rizzo. "Coming back like that, seesawing back and forth all game -- this is what we do, we don't quit."
These Cubs believe. They have learned to grind to the end, that the value of persistence is the best way to enhance their already prodigious young talent.
And, as the Cubs are starting to find out, that combination may just be enough to conquer all.
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