'The W is all that matters': Chicago Cubs manager David Ross is already in playoff mode

David Kohl/USA TODAY Sports

He hasn't declared himself definitively in playoff mode, but Chicago Cubs manager David Ross' actions have spoken for him. When he pulled one of his best friends in the game, free-agent-to-be Jon Lester -- in perhaps his final start at Wrigley Field -- it was a good indication the man they call Rossy was raising the stakes heading into October.

Lester, who had given up only two runs on 62 pitches over five innings last Wednesday against the Cleveland Indians, wanted to keep going, but Ross said it was enough. The knots in his stomach didn't prevent him from making the move.

"Pulling Jon early was like, 'I have an obligation to this group with a stacked bullpen and an off day the next day,'" Ross explained. "That factored into it."

Lester's take: "The big thing there is we have to separate friendship and realize he's the boss and he makes decisions based on what's best for the ballclub. Sometimes that's hard to swallow."

Those kinds of decisions have been piling up for the famously intense Ross, who might just be practicing for next week, when the Cubs will be playing in the postseason with a veteran team but a first-year manager.

"You try to ramp up and see who can handle what," Ross said recently. "See what it looks like from different guys. Who can be trusted to give you that good at-bat or come in out of the bullpen and give you innings. You're constantly assessing in this job."

Ross has been doing a lot of assessing of his offense lately, and he can't like what he has seen. Entering play Thursday, the Cubs were hitting just .217 in September. It has led him to tinker with his lineup like a mad scientist. He even moved former MVP runner-up Javier Baez down to sixth, then seventh. Come October, feelings won't be spared.

"The focus will change," Ross said. "Getting numbers and all those things, it switches from all that. And the W is all that matters. That should always be the case, but it's just not. It's also the way they make a living."

Baez is just one Cubs hitter who will be glad to start anew in the postseason. He's hitting .196 for the season, struggling no matter where he bats in the lineup. But switching up the order and pulling a pitcher early were just appetizers to the headline-making move Ross made a few days later.

With the team well on its way to the postseason, the first-year skipper didn't like what he saw out of another veteran, left fielder Kyle Schwarber, and again his actions spoke louder than his words. After Schwarber over-pursued a fly ball off the wall at Wrigley, he took his time tracking it down, turning a double into a triple.

Ross pulled him from the game at the end of the inning.

Afterward, Ross said he wanted to keep the incident in-house, but Schwarber didn't hide from his lack of hustle, and by the next day, the two were hugging it out in the dugout.

"David Ross is the manager," Schwarber said. "He's also a mentor to me. To be able to learn and be able to joke about it now, it's just who we are."

Ross is also a friend; to Schwarber, Lester, Baez and a few others with whom he won a World Series as the team's catcher in 2016. That led to the big question coming into the season: Would Ross' friendships get in the way of his managing? If the past two weeks are any indication, the answer is a resounding "no." It's not as if Ross picked a rookie as his target in sending a message. He knew who could handle it.

"I didn't understand how people thought it might be a negative," Ross said of his relationships with his former teammates. "Knowing the guys and how they tick is a huge advantage that most first-year managers don't get."

And what about those tough conversations? The ones that caused knots in his stomach.

"Tough conversations have gone a little easier because they know where my heart is and I'm able to tell them how I feel," Ross said. "It's not easy. I'll tell you that. It definitely sucks from this seat. I have real friendships that I've had to do stuff that I would never have to do as a player.

"Feelings are involved, but I've been able to pull the trigger on some tough decisions. I'm able to talk to them afterward about it. They're not always happy about it."

Fast-forward to next week. With the Cubs' offense stuck in neutral, every move Ross makes could swing a game or even a series. What's his mindset having never been in this position?

"The best managers, like Joe [Maddon] and Bobby [Cox], really were calm and the same people," Ross said. "There was no huge speech. ... If you get outside of that just because it's the postseason, you're not doing your players justice because the reason you got there was doing things in a certain way."

The Cubs' front office is getting exactly what it expected when it hired Ross, pre-pandemic. Back then, easing into the job was a luxury that's not afforded any of the first-year managers right now. But he has adapted and despite the offense's problems, he has his team in first place.

"He can deliver a stern message, but the guys take it in the right way," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "He's been stern when he has to be stern. He's been supportive when he needs to be supportive."

So did Ross make a concerted effort to start his postseason before October?

"I don't think I consciously thought about it like that," he said with a laugh. "I definitely feel more comfortable knowing my personnel and how to use them."

The Cubs view it as Rossy being Rossy. Affable but intense. And someone who has been there before. He has hit a Game 7 World Series home run, but also hit .184 and .176 in back-to-back seasons.

"Rossy understands the level of focus, attention to detail and preparation that it takes to win," Cubs president Theo Epstein said via email. "He calls it a championship mindset and he's always looking for ways to communicate its importance to the players -- whether it's in conversations, a team address, an in-game move.

"That's what successful teams show on the field this time of year and he's always trying to find a way to lock that in."