By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) If you’re looking for the team with the upper hand going into the National League wild-card matchup Wednesday evening between the Pirates and Cubs, each team certainly has a strong case to be the smart money.
The Pirates are terrific team that will host the wild-card game for the third straight season. They have a great manager in Clint Hurdle, a talented group of coaches, ace right-hander Gerrit Cole set to take the hill and a frantic fan base to cheer their Bucs on to victory.
The Cubs have ace right-hander Jake Arrieta slated to take the mound, and by now you know plenty about his story and dominant run.
What the Cubs also have is the “Maddon Mojo.” This secret weapon that the Cubs have on their side is difficult to quantify. You must watch the way Cubs manager Joe Maddon handles his group every day to get a true sense of his impact. Maddon’s not best described as a manager. He should more accurately be called a baseball life counselor, and he’s been setting the Cubs up for this moment all season.
Certainly, the Cubs have a talented bunch of young players, mixed in with some grizzled veterans. The older players have battled through the big moments and pressure for years, and their attitude has helped rub off on the youngsters. The David Ross and Anthony Rizzo lovefest begins every day with the 38-year old Ross exchanging bear hugs and terms of endearment with the 26-year-old Rizzo. “Love thy baseball brother” is a Cubs mantra that all begins with Maddon and permeates through the clubhouse.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer get the credit for bringing in Maddon and putting the building blocks together for this exciting, young group. Ahead of their time and playing with a ton of house money, the 2015 Cubs are one of the great surprise teams in recent memory.
Only Maddon, Rizzo and The Sporting News had the nerve to predict the Cubs becoming a playoff factor this season. In January at the Cubs Convention, Rizzo predicted an NL Central title. That didn’t happen, but he was certainly correct in assessing that the Cubs would be an elite team. Maddon envisioned the Cubs being a playoff team from the day he was hired. Only the Sporting News went all the way to prognosticating a World Series championship on the North Side.
The Maddon way is easy to describe for the rabid Cubs fan. Early to the ballpark and sitting around in your underwear is a big non-starter for the 60-year-old Madon. Optional batting practice directed by hitting coach John Mallee occurs two to three times a week. Zero batting practice and limited cage availability is the norm most of the time. Coaches coach every day in the Maddon system. If it’s ground balls and fly balls, assistance and instruction is provided daily by bench coach Dave Martinez and third-base coach Gary Jones..
The pitching regiment is routine in the Cubs’ system. It’s handled under the watchful eye of pitching coach Chris Bosio, bullpen coach Lester Strode and catching coordinator Mike Borzello. Positive reinforcement and tough love are king in this area of the club.
Magic shows, petting zoos and dance parties after every victory are a part of the loose atmosphere that is the this Cubs way under Maddon. The Pirates could easily win the Wednesday showdown between Cole and Jake Arrieta, but either way, these Cubs won’t be scared in their initial playoff journey into a hostile stadium.
The Cubs had 48 wins on the road in the regular season, the most in baseball. They also went 6-4 against the Pirates at PNC Park this year.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.