Cubs

Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina back in play for Cubs-Cardinals

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Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina back in play for Cubs-Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – Adam Wainwright made only four starts and the St. Louis Cardinals still won 100 games – and baseball’s toughest division – with their organizational pitching depth and next-man-up attitude.

Yadier Molina – the heart-and-soul catcher and seven-time Gold Glove winner – might be the one player St. Louis couldn’t replace.

Now that Wainwright and Molina have been cleared for what should be an epic National League division series, the Cardinals will have even more championship experience to draw upon during their first-ever playoff matchup against the Cubs.

[MORE: Bring it on: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will escalate to another level]

Wainwright was supposed to be done for the year when he tore an Achilles tendon in late April, but St. Louis manager Mike Matheny confirmed his Opening Day starter will be on the best-of-five roster and available out of the bullpen for Game 1 on Friday at Busch Stadium.

Molina sprained his left thumb on Sept. 20 at Wrigley Field and hasn’t played in a game since making that tag at the plate. It’s been a down year for the seven-time All-Star (.660 OPS), but his presence means so much to the St. Louis pitching staff and clubhouse.  

“I think he feels pain,” Matheny said after Thursday’s workout. “He just doesn’t recognize it, or know how to define it.

“Yadi has an ability (to) put some of those things behind (and) not just play the game, but play it well. And be able to put the distraction away – whatever it is that’s bothering him – and bring something good to the field.

“He’s a smart guy, too. He doesn’t want to go out there if he’s not able to contribute. If he’s not able to compete and do what he needs to do, he knows that would hurt our club. And right now, that’s not the situation that we’re in. We’re very fortunate.”

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Wainwright made three one-inning relief appearances during the final week of the regular season. That’s how the Cardinals probably envision using their 6-foot-7 right-hander as a playoff weapon.   

Wainwright famously froze Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded to eliminate the New York Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, setting the stage for another World Series title. 

“(It’s) an incredible story when a lot of people said he wouldn’t make it back this year,” Matheny said. “But he’s also a very sharp pitcher right now. He looks good. And we’re going to give him opportunities, too, in big situations.” 

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.