Joe Maddon is using a new shampoo. It is designed to reduce the gray in his hair, and after just four or five applications, it is working. Before long, said Maddon, the manager of the Chicago Cubs, he might even try frosted highlights. For now, though, he is happy with a shade he calls blue steel.
You might think Maddon would be superstitious, and would do everything possible to preserve what worked in 2016, when the Cubs won their first World Series in more than a century. But that is not his style.
“See, that’s exactly wrong,” Maddon said. “You should never do that. It’s almost a bizarro world — everything’s, like, almost the opposite. It’s George Costanza at his best.”
Then again, George went from loser to winner on “Seinfeld,” and the Cubs want to stay on top. But they are, indeed, following a different path to glory. Last year’s Cubs ran away with the National League Central, posting the best record in the majors at 103-58. These Cubs staggered into the All-Star break at 43-45, five and a half games behind Milwaukee.
“Baseball’s a weird game,” said Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs’ left fielder. “It’ll do things to you.”
It chewed up Schwarber early this season, spitting him back to the minors with a .170 average in June. It also crowned a new superteam: the Los Angeles Dodgers, who sprinted to 90 victories before any other team had 78. And the Cubs are just fine with that.
Asked if he paid attention to the Dodgers’ torrid pace, Maddon said he did. Then, without prompting, he looked ahead to October.
“Listen, I’m very confident playing against them, too — absolutely,” he said. “As we continue to get well, we need to finish this off strongly, which we’re very capable of doing. But I like the way we match against them — a lot, not a little bit.”
The Cubs have the worst record of any first place team, at 68-59 after falling to the Phillies, 7-1, at Citizens Bank Park on Friday. But they had gained eight and a half games on the Brewers since the break, and led the division by three games before Friday.
All of the Cubs except the closer, Wade Davis, were off for the break. Davis was the Cubs’ only All-Star, a stinging indictment of their dreary start. But over the break, they acquired starter Jose Quintana from the White Sox for four prospects, and the stabilized rotation has helped the Cubs go 25-14 since the break. Their starters are 19-6 with a 3.42 earned run average in that stretch, with Mike Montgomery filling in for the injured Jon Lester.
“They’ve been very consistent,” said Alex Avila, the veteran catcher acquired in a trade with Detroit on July 31. “That’s why they got off to a great start after the break, and why we’ve been able to continue that play, because we’re getting an opportunity from the beginning to win the game with quality pitching.”
The Cubs have also hit better, scoring the most runs in the majors since the break (222 — or 5.8 per game — through Thursday). They expect shortstop Addison Russell (foot) and catcher Willson Contreras (hamstring) back in September.
The Dodgers, who are a mind-bending 55-11 since early June, are probably not too worried. But the Cubs did beat them in a six-game N.L. Championship Series last fall, and a healthy roster — with Quintana in the rotation, Davis replacing Aroldis Chapman as closer, and a few other new players, like Ian Happ (19 homers) — could be imposing.
As it stands now, the Cubs would face the Washington Nationals in the division series, with the Dodgers getting the wild-card winner. Maddon eagerly peeked past the first round to an N.L.C.S. rematch.
“Absolutely want it, totally want it, nothing would make me happier than that,” he said. “That’s not to denigrate other teams that potentially could get in here. But for us, I’ve always been about ‘you want to beat the best to be the best.’ They’re the best right now, and you’ve got to go through that group. I’m looking forward to that moment where I feel like we’re clicking on all cylinders again. We’re getting closer to it — and when you get to that point, bring on all comers.”
The Cubs beat the Dodgers in two of three games at Wrigley Field in April, when the Cubs raised their championship banner and received their rings. When the teams met again in Los Angeles in May, the Dodgers swept the Cubs, who then were swept in San Diego.
Maddon said that was part of the Cubs’ “malaise,” and dismissed their first half as the “typical World Series hangover.” Just one of the six champions that preceded the Cubs even qualified for the playoffs the next season, so maybe it should not have been surprising.
Now, though, the Cubs clearly expect a chance to repeat, and Maddon said he was periodically resting his regulars before the adrenaline rush of September. Then comes October, and third baseman Kris Bryant said he would not mind being an underdog to the Dodgers.
“Nobody cares about that — I know we don’t — just because it doesn’t matter who the favorite is,” Bryant said. “We were the favorite last year and we won, but usually it doesn’t happen that way. So you never know. They’re having a great season — 90 wins is really impressive. They might even break the record the Mariners set.”
Left unsaid was what happened to the 2001 Mariners after they tied the major league record for regular-season victories with 116: They lost in the American League Championship Series to the Yankees, the defending World Series champions.