By Bruce Levine–

CHICAGO (CBS) — Joe Maddon was hopeful his team was a playoff contender as he took over the reins of the Chicago Cubs and began a new chapter in his managing career.

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A series sweep against the pitching-rich New York Mets in May convinced the 60-year-old baseball man he had a team ready to win.

Now that 60 games are in the books, the question about whether the Cubs can sustain the winning will be Maddon’s challenge.

“We faced a lot of good pitching from New York,” Maddon remembered. “That is all they have, a lot of good pitching. We won some close games and then did pretty well against Kansas City. I think every game we have played has been the same game (close), except for two. That’s the part that I am liking. We got that feeling prior to the game. Our guys are always ready to play.”

I asked Maddon how he detects a competitive group in his midst as seasons progress and personnel changes.

“I am a feel guy — you walk through your clubhouse and dugout and you want to feel the vibe,” he said before Friday’s tilt against Cincinnati. “You want to know if it’s a closely knit group. Are they coming ready to play? Are they nervous? Are they looking forward to challenges? How they react when things don’t go well. Right now, our clubhouse feels really good.”

Maddon has a nice mix of veteran pros who have been through the baseball wars and talented young up-and-comers. Entering play with the fourth-best record in the National League is the result for the Cubs of a hard-working club, with a belief they’re never out of a game.

“Joe convinced us early in spring training, ‘Let’s do simple better,’” veteran catcher David Ross said. “I really think that has gone a long way with the younger players. People want to analyze this game to every little detail. With all the stats and numbers it can be really overbearing. Joe gives the players a chance to be just us, away from all of the ancillary pressures of the game. He encourages us to put on pickoff plays, take an extra base, to push the envelope. He most importantly backs all of our moves. No second guess, and that is all you can ask for from your leader.”

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As the season has progressed, Maddon has asked for better play from his men and has expected more from them daily. He sees a team embracing the thought of playing meaningful baseball into October.

“Our guys are relishing this thought,” Maddon said. “It appears it’s becoming slightly more believable, and they are understanding what it takes every day to do this or accomplish this.”

A subtle change has occurred in Maddon’s foot-on-the-pedal method of managing his players. A positive message almost always is sent from the manager. Over the last couple of weeks, he admitted that he wants more from his players.

“All of a sudden you have guys thinking differently,” he said. “In a good way, I think. I believe (that method) is about setting the tone, that it’s not about one person, but rather about the group.”

Maddon confirmed his handling of left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada — removing him after three innings on Thursday evening after he struggled — is a message to the troops.

“We had to move it along,” Maddon said. “I think when you are playing with a ring in mind, you make some decisions that aren’t just about developing guys. We could say we are developing for tomorrow, that we are only a .500 team. If you are hoping you will just be better next year, you might make decisions differently.”

The players appear ready to do whatever their manager asks for. That seems to be the key to putting this baseball puzzle together.

“Joe does a good job of communicating and laying out roles for the guys,” Ross said. “I think that is vital to the players in the locker room, knowing how you can contribute on any given day. They get you the lineups early. You know when you’re playing and when you’re not. We don’t give away at-bats or games or pitches. It’s been a lot of fun.”

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Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.