The message from Cubs brass to players for final stretch of 2019

Tony Andracki
NBC Sports Chicago

The Cubs didn't have a team meeting in San Diego to hash things out the way they did back in June 2017

But that didn't stop the leaders of the organization from delivering their message to the players ahead of the final homestand of the 2019 season - and the Cubs' last shot at working themselves back into an enviable spot in the race for October.

The Cubs narrowly escaped San Diego with a series split this week and returned home to Wrigley Field feeling like they let the 3-5 road trip get away from them. Road woes are nothing new for this year's team, but with the season on the line, the last thing the Cubs wanted to do was give the Milwaukee Brewers life or drop back-to-back games to a rebuilding Padres club. 

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Before Friday's contest against the Pirates, manager Joe Maddon said he didn't like the energy his team had in the final game in San Diego and felt his guys were putting too much pressure on themselves.

They responded with their best offensive showing since April 30, 2008 - scoring at least 5 runs in three separate innings en route to a 17-8 win.

"Everybody's playing a little bit too tight and that's the one thing I'm just trying to get across to these guys," Maddon said. "When you play uptight, it's very difficult. Play with your hair on fire, play the game, don't worry about all this information. Our guys care so much. ... I want us to loosen up and play baseball and I think if we're able to do that over the next two weeks, we'll get the result that we're looking for."

Maddon and the Cubs didn't get the result they were looking for in the top of the first inning Friday, as back-to-back throwing errors from Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. led to 4 runs for the Pirates. But the offense stormed back with an impressive power display in the bottom of the inning, scoring 5 runs on dingers from Nicholas Castellanos, Contreras and Nico Hoerner (playing in his first career game at Wrigley). 

The lineup didn't stop there, scoring 5 more runs in the third inning and then sending 12 batters to the plate in a 7-run fifth inning that was all started by Kris Bryant's hustle.

Maddon said he has been "infiltrating the group" in his own ways as he tries to get the Cubs back to playing loose and free. 

Jon Lester - who pitched around the poor defensive showing from his teammates to earn his 13th win of the season Friday - agrees that this squad has put too much pressure on themselves at times this season.

"I think we're all trying too hard sometimes," Lester said. "I'm guilty of it; I think everybody in that clubhouse is guilty of it. You want to win the game before the game is even played. That's part of the grind of playing 162 games. You get into those funk sometimes. I think a game like today can help guys loosen up a little bit. I think whenever you struggle, whether it be the pitching side of the game or defensively or offensively, you always try to make up for that in that one instance.

"For us, it's that one pitch - 'I'm gonna make this perfect pitch, I'm gonna get him out and it's gonna be over with and move on to the next guy.' Well, sometimes that puts you 1-0 as opposed to being 0-1 just with a quality pitch. Same thing with hitting - 'oh I'm gonna try to hit a 4-run homer with nobody on right here.'

"You get into those funks where you just almost have to play yourself out of it. Hopefully today is a day where we can all kinda move on from that. It was a big team win for us, all-the-way-around. ... Hopefully we can just continue that and use that momentum from today."

Theo Epstein took to the radio waves to deliver his message to the masses of Cubs fans, but he's also been talking to players behind the scenes and trying to help his team get on the right track with only two-plus weeks remaining in the season.

"The guys have been really frustrated because I think they look around at the other names and how they feel about themselves - 'We have so much talent, how come we're not winning? How come we're not performing?'" Epstein said before Friday's game. "It's just frustrating because they care. So I think it's gonna come.

"We haven't been hot in four months or so. Just frustrating that we seemingly can't get going in certain spots - on the road, especially. But I have not seen any quit by any individual players. I don't see guys who think we can't get it done. I see a team that can certainly play really well down the stretch and change the script and that's what we intend to do."

Epstein is referencing the Cubs' 54-53 record since May 14, a four-month stretch that has seen them drop into a tie with the Brewers for the final playoff spot in the NL with only 16 games to go. 

A lot can happen in 16 games - the Brewers made up 5 games in the standings on the Cubs in the span of a week.

With seven games remaining against the division-leading Cardinals and a 4-game deficit in the division, there is still a scenario here in which the Cubs can avoid facing Max Scherzer and the mighty Nationals in the Wild-Card Game.

But in order to do so, they have to find what's eluded them all season - a consistent brand of winning baseball.

"I think we all feel like this is a team that should be winning," Epstein said. "The players aren't happy with how we're playing. Joe, coaches, managers, front office - we all have different ways of expressing it. But I don't believe in hiding the ball and saying everything's great when things aren't. 

"I still believe in this group. I still think most importantly we have a chance to write our own story here. Sometimes it's better late than never. You'd like to have a season where things really go your way and you can separate a little bit. That hasn't been our path this year. [We'll have] a lot of time after we're done playing - hopefully in November - to talk about why. 

"I'm the first one accountable for it. I run the baseball operations here, so if I'm upset with anything, I'm upset with myself. But that's not the story. The story is we're tied for a playoff spot. We have seven games left against the team we're chasing in the division. And we have a really talented group of guys that hasn't put it all together yet. But we can and we're planning on making that happen."

Friday was a great start if the Cubs are going to change the script and rewrite the story of their season.

Now the key will be carrying that over into Saturday.

And then Sunday.

And then Monday.

And then...

The message from Cubs brass to players for final stretch of 2019 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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