Joe Maddon calls hitters-only meeting as camp picks up intensity in final days

MESA, Ariz. -- A sense of urgency has descended upon Chicago Cubs spring training. Manager Joe Maddon admitted that the only off day of camp on Monday came at a perfect time: Everyone got their rest and now it’s time to focus on the task at hand as the regular season approaches.

Maddon proved as much by calling a hitters-only meeting inside the Cubs batting cages early on Tuesday at their practice facility and then sending a regular-season lineup on a 40-minute drive to Goodyear, Arizona, for a contest against the Cincinnati Reds. Usually those games are reserved, well, for the reserves. But with 10 days left in camp, it’s time to turn up the intensity.

“One of the more difficult things is to get behind early in the standings, significantly,” Maddon said Tuesday morning. “You burn up a lot of energy getting back into it. I’m all about the last 10 days of camp and I’m about getting off to a good start.”

Maddon should know. His 2014 Tampa Bay Rays were picked to be a contender in the American League East. On May 1, they were 13-16 and in last place. On June 1, they were nine games under .500. By Sept. 1, they had made up about five games but it was too little, too late.

In the hitters-only meeting, Maddon reinforced what coaches John Mallee and Eric Hinske have been pleading during camp. From experience, Maddon knows when the boss steps in at a given moment, players will listen.

“When I’m able to chime in, I know it matters,” Maddon explained. “I feel good about my message. ... I really wanted to support what they’re doing right now and put the clinician’s hat on today, which I enjoy. It was a great conversation.”

The topic was mostly about doing the little things at the plate that eluded the team last year. In perhaps the worst team statistic of 2015, the Cubs ranked dead last in baseball in bringing home a runner from third base with less than two outs. They accomplished the feat just 40 percent of the time. For perspective, the next worst was Seattle at 46 percent, while the best in baseball was Boston at nearly 60 percent. Imagine how many more runs the Cubs would've scored if they had just been average at bringing home a runner from third.

“You need to win 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 to win championships,” Maddon said. “How do you do that? When you’re facing a good pitcher and you have an opportunity to score a run, it doesn’t always have to be a hit, but that run has to come in with less than two outs.”

It’s not even worth reciting who on the Cubs struggled in this department last year. It was nearly everyone, and it's one reason Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist are on the team in 2016. Their specialty is contact, especially when it’s needed. For example, Heyward was successful 54 percent of the time in bringing home a runner from third last season and 74 percent of the time in 2014.

“Just moving the baseball in general,” Maddon said. “To cut down on our strikeouts, to have a better plan with two strikes. All these things are pertinent.”

And now is the time to work on them. Maddon wants to see how players perform in situations in spring games before the real thing begins. They have less than two weeks to figure out how to get better.

“This is where you pay more attention, more closely from my perspective,” Maddon said. “Who’s trying to do different things when moments matter?”