For Cubs extra arms, staying ready is a mental workout

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Dillon Maples went 10 days in between appearances this month, pitching on September 4 against the Brewers and then not again until Friday night. And when he came in to Friday's game against the Reds, it was to protect a one run lead in the 7th inning.

Two days later, Maples set down the bottom of the Reds lineup on Sunday afternoon in order to keep the Cubs deficit at 2-1.

Being prepared to come in to a high-leverage spot like that amidst a mid-September division race has meant going beyond just the physical preparation for relievers like Maples.

"I try to be disciplined every day because you never know when you’re going to go in," Maples said. "So just being physically and mentally ready at all times."

The trick Maples said he likes to use is to pretend he's the one pitching when, say, Jesse Chavez is on the mound.

"You immerse yourself in those situations as much as possible. Obviously it’s tough, but get those mental reps of putting yourself out there, and just be in the moment," Maples said.

Even when his name isn't called to warm up, Maples said that when he sees someone like Chavez get up in the bullpen, he starts running through the situation mentally as if it were him. He looks at how many guys are on base and who, and he said he thinks about things like whether the runners are fast or not and what kind of a stretch the hitter is having.

"I’m kind of walking through how would I be attacking this guy," Maples said. "You’re gameplanning in your head before and while he’s out there doing it."

The expanded rosters of September can be a blessing and a curse for managers. They provide an easier chance to rest players when needed, but they also complicate the puzzle of giving everyone an opportunity to play. As a result, sometimes a reliever like Maples can spend a lot of time playing the game only mentally.

"It’s difficult. The other day we put Dillon in a tough spot. He had not pitched in a while, and he came in and threw," Joe Maddon said Sunday. "For me it’s just going out there and being able to throw a quality strike with his best pitch, which is his slider."

Maples' slider is the bane of any hitter who has had to try to make contact. He has an upper 90s fastball to pair with it, but his slider moves like a frisbee. In 2017, hitters whiffed on Maples' slider nearly 20 percent of the time and never got a hit against it. Between Triple-A and the majors this year, it's meant a strikeout rate of 42 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

Maples has value because there is real potential for him to pitch high-leverage innings, if he can hone his command. For now, Maples spends his time in the bullpen during games prepping himself mentally, so when he does come in, he can handle the situation, whatever it looks like.

"It’s hard to expect a really high level performance, and I get it, so when I put them out there now, I’m trying to get a jab, trying to find that right spot right now that matches up well for them. Don’t put too heavy of a load on them in an even or ahead situation. If it’s a negative situation, give them more latitude," Maddon said. "Give them credit, they stay ready."

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