Of the many T-shirts in fashion these days around the Cubs clubhouse is one that reads: “D-peat.”
It reflects manager Joe Maddon’s assertion that if the Cubs play good defense, as they did last year, they have a chance to repeat as world champions.
Defense is an obsession with Maddon. In an age when everybody digs the longball and starting pitching sets the tone, Maddon gets just as excited over a good play in the field.
But there’s more. The Cubs play an aggressive style of defense. Their catchers throw behind runners at first base. Maddon went with a five-man infield to try to choke off the winning run. A wild pitch made it moot.
On bunt plays, Maddon has had Anthony Rizzo trade his first baseman’s glove for a fielder’s glove and move closer to second base, with the second baseman moving to first. Rizzo is not afraid to charge in from that spot.
At other times, Maddon has Javier Baez charging in from his second base position to field the ball.
What the Cubs have done with all this is turn their defense into a weapon.
But, as Maddon pointed out, to pull off plays such as having Baez come charging in with so much going on around him takes a special player.
“He’s fearless,” the manager said. “A lot of guys would not be that comfortable that close to the hitter. Riz is the same way. Part of it is the fact that either guy is fearless in regard to getting that close to the hitter. They (the opposition) try to do the slash (bunt). That’s what you’re going to do. You’re either going to bunt it or try to do that.
“If you get at least the one out, you’re happy with it, and the runner did not advance. There’s going to come the time when they’re going to do that (hit it past the infield) and the ball’s going to go over our guy’s head and going to go into right field. It’s going to work on the other side. I get that.”
Of course, in right field is the strong arm and steady presence of Jason Heyward, against whom base runners try for the extra bag at their own risk.
It all starts in the infield, and that many different looks can be disconcerting to a batter with a runner at first base.
“It’s like anything else you do on defense,” Maddon said. “When the hitter’s not used to seeing it, it bothers them. There’s no question it bothers them. It’s something they’re not used seeing. Yeah, it’s different when you have defense in your face that much. You’ve got three guys lined up on that side of the field, the pitcher. And Javy’s got to stay out of the way so the pitcher can throw the ball to first base, too. Otherwise, you have no pickoff attempt. So there’s all this little nuance.
“You can’t do it all the time. You’ve got to pick your right guys. It can even work with runners on first and second in the right situation, too.”
Rizzo is one of the right guys, and the word “fearless” was at the forefront when Maddon talked about him, as well.
“He is fearless,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t worry about minutiae. He doesn’t worry about superficial nonsense. He’s going to go out there and play a really good game of baseball. We put him in there on that defense with the bunt, and he’s right in the hitter’s face. A lot of hitters don’t like that. He picks up the bunt and throws a strike to second base and we turn a double play. He goes on (top of) a wall. The stuff he picks out of the dirt, he makes our infielders all better every day.”
For Rizzo, it’s all in a day’s work.
“It’s just the way I’ve been taught to play the game,” he said. “You don’t hold anything back. Whatever you have that day, you give 100 percent of and leave it out there on a daily basis and figure it out how to do it the next day.”