By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The Wrigley Field flags were flapping toward home plate Thursday evening, bringing with them the sign of fall baseball.
That reminder was also on the mind of Cubs manager Joe Maddon as his club enters September with a 3.5-game lead in the NL Central and many games with a playoff vibe await. Fall weather usually means home runs are a little harder to come by. And while president of baseball operations Theo Epstein recently said he wants his team to be as “long ball-ish” as possible, he, Maddon and the rest of the Cubs know a solid small-ball approach will be crucial in September and beyond.
Specifically this month with expanded rosters, teams can add to their bullpens and create better matchups to mitigate the home run to a degree.
During this homestand, the Cubs’ coaching staff has been stressing bunting and base-running drills. The reintroduction of spring training-like drills can be helpful at crucial times.
“It is great to score 15 runs,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We know in the important games, that is not going to happen. You have to be comfortable playing in one-run games. When the weather gets colder and the pitching gets better, you are going to have to do that. Our playoff run last year was all about games that were close. That was especially true in the first six innings of those games. You have to be able to score a run without the home run.”
Entering play Friday, the Cubs (73-60) had 29 games remaining, including seven apiece against the Brewers and Cardinals, the two teams chasing them in the division. A 10-day, three-city road trip in Tampa, Milwaukee and St. Louis from Sept. 19-28 could go a long way toward determining the NL Central winner too.
The Cubs know every facet of the game is vital at this time of year. That’s the reason they acquired outfielder Leonys Martin from the Mariners late Thursday. He’s hitting just .174 this season but can make a difference as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement.
After all, sometimes it’s just one play in one game that can make such a big difference.
“I do want us to be able to do other things,” Maddon said. “We have to have things like a better two-strike approach. Javy(Baez) had two great at-bats (Thursday). I think we have been doing more of that. We have to play that type of game. We have the power. I like the ability to move the baseball (by hitting to all fields). We have been running the bases well lately also. I really believe when you are facing better pitching, it is harder to hit the home run.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.