Joe Maddon has his work cut out for him. He must convince his team that they can accomplish the next-to-impossible. Good luck with that.
Maddon’s Chicago Cubs are looking at a 3-0 deficit in their National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. New York’s pitching has been better than their opponents from Chicago’s north side. More importantly, the Mets’ starters have been better than the Cubs’ potent, but young, hitters.
So what does a manager say to his team facing a hole that must seem as deep as the Marianas Trench? He might want to call Terry Francona for some advice.
It was 11 years ago when Francona found himself in precisely the same position as Maddon. Francona’s Boston Red Sox trailed the other team from New York, the Yankees, 3-0, in the American League Championship Series.
In Game 4, things could not have been bleaker. Boston trailed 4-3 with the best closer the game has ever produced, Mariano Rivera, on the mound for New York in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Red Sox tied the game off Rivera, then won it in extra innings. They repeated extra-inning magic the next night. After winning a close Game 6, the Red Sox blew out the Yankees in Game 7, sending them to the World Series against St. Louis, which Boston won.
Chicago faces similar odds, but this team fits their name perfectly. They have plenty of young cubs, but precious few bears.
The Red Sox were made up of seasoned veterans such as Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Francona could send guys like Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe to the mound under the pressure of elimination.
The young Cubs are a team analysts thought was at least a year away. After some post-season success, perhaps the “experts” were right in the end.
At the same time, one can be young and talented. Their oldest infielder, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, turned 26 in August. Maddon routinely starts an outfield of players aged 22, 23 and one old man, Dexter Fowler, aged 29. Starting pitchers Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel are a bit more mature with Arrieta the youngest at 29.
The amount of mental toughness required to do what Boston did in 2004 is incalculable. Whatever level of toughness that was, experience and confidence were key ingredients.
Those who followed the Rays closely over the years know that Maddon will say and/or do something to make things easier for his players. Expect the unexpected.
In spring training, he brought in a disc jockey to play music on the field while the Cubs went through drills. As they slumped near the halfway point, Maddon brought in a magician to “loosen things up.”
Ironically, that stunt occurred as Chicago was about to begin a series with the Mets. It worked.
The Cubs need a galaxy of magic mixed with divine intervention to think about repeating what the Red Sox did in 2004. A few big hits combined with some clutch starting pitching would not hurt, either.
There is a reason why only one team has gone on to win a post- season series after trailing 3-0. It is next to impossible to achieve.
Their first chance to extend their season comes tonight. If the Cubs end up being part of that long list of those who have failed, their fans have plenty of experience in knowing what to do next:
Wait till next year.