Cubs manager Joe Maddon used to have a four-word message for leadoff man Dexter Fowler before every game:
“You go, we go.”
The message hasn’t changed, though its phrasing has been cut by half.
“Now, he doesn’t even have to say it. He just goes, ‘It’s true,’ ” Fowler said before Sunday’s Game 2 of the NLCS.
Dexter Fowler rounds first base after hitting a home run in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Maddon has pointed out often this season that the Cubs’ overall performance has tended to follow Fowler’s lead. Fowler hit .347 with a .474 on-base percentage in April, when the Cubs tore out to a 17-5 start. When he missed 28 games with a hamstring injury in June and July, the Cubs lost 17 of 28 games. In Friday’s Game 1 victory over the Dodgers, Fowler singled and scored in the first inning and later homered — to say nothing of his pair of diving catches in center field.
“We would not be in this position without him,” Maddon said.
In a frustrating 1-0 loss to Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game 2, it was indeed the case that the Cubs followed Fowler’s lead. Off Kershaw, Fowler grounded out to third in each of his first two at-bats and popped up to the catcher in his third. Fowler led off the ninth inning and struck out against closer Kenley Jansen.
But it’s a long series, and that’ll mean more chances to get his team going for Fowler, an eighth-year big leaguer and second-year Cub.
There is, however, serious question as to whether or not Fowler’s role with the team will disappear after the postseason. The two-year contract he signed prior to this season includes a $9 million mutual option for 2017, which the Cubs can buy out for $5 million.
The Cubs will have Jason Heyward holding down one outfield spot next season and will have left fielder Kyle Schwarber back from the injury that cost him nearly all of the 2016 campaign. Young slugger Jorge Soler should still be in the fold, along with rising talent Albert Almora Jr. — a less-expensive center field option for the Cubs who reputedly would be an upgrade from Fowler defensively.
And don’t forget about veteran jack-of-all-trades Ben Zobrist. Javy Baez’s emergence at second base could squeeze Zobrist completely out of consideration for the infield.
Fowler surprised all of baseball — and his Cubs teammates — when he re-signed with the team in February. It was a feel-good moment that spoke to the bond he’d formed with fellow players in Chicago.
“I prayed on it and, at the end of the day, this is where I wanted to be,” he said. “And I came back, and I’m definitely grateful for that.”
Now, though, one begins to wonder if we’re seeing the final days for Fowler in a Cubs uniform. A popular player with fans who has improved his defense in Year 2 in Chicago, Fowler insists he’s too focused on enjoying the ride to fret over the uncertainty of his future.
“Not at all, man,” he said. “You pray on it, and you go from there. That’s all you can do. God has a plan for me, I feel like, and I just go out and do my best and see where it takes me.
“If it’s not in the cards to have a long-term deal, then it’s not in the cards. But, obviously, that’s what you want and that’s what you play for.”
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.