Cubs

Brian Duensing: The unsung hero of Cubs bullpen

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AP

Brian Duensing: The unsung hero of Cubs bullpen

Brian Duensing thought he was being punked.

But there was no Ashton Kutcher or hidden cameras.

The defending champions really were going hard after Duensing on the free agent market over the winter.

"I asked my agent, 'What are we missing? I don't understand,'" Duensing said on this week's CubsTalk Podcast. "He said, 'Hey, when teams want somebody, they go after him.' I said, 'Alright, they must know something that I don't.'"

And they did. 

The Cubs front office was passionate about going out and getting Duensing as a veteran left-handed option in the bullpen.

"I know our scouts in the offseason felt really strongly about him," Joe Maddon said. "Coming into this season, that's all I heard about. Our guys loved Brian Duensing."

Duensing is a diamond in the rough, a guy who entered the winter with a 4.13 and 1.38 WHIP in 662.2 career innings, striking out an average of 5.9 hitters per nine innings.

This season, the 34-year-old has a 2.45 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and has nearly doubled his strikeout rate to 10.2 batters per nine innings.

"A lot of swings and misses — I don't know what that's about, to be honest," Duensing said. "I really don't know what's going on there. Just things are working really well right now and hopefully they continue."

Duensing had a stretch of 16.1 scoreless innings going before giving up a run and taking the loss Wednesday in San Francisco.

It all looks legit, too. Duensing's FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (expected FIP) are at 2.99 and 3.34, respectively, meaning the peripheral numbers support his breakout season.

Based on FanGraphs' WAR, Duensing (0.7) is tied with Mike Montgomery and Koji Uehara as the second-best Cubs reliever behind only Wade Davis (0.9). Hector Rondon (0.5 WAR), Pedro Strop (0.5) and Carl Edwards Jr. (0.4) are further down that list.

Duensing admitted feeling a little unsure of himself when he first joined the Cubs, as he didn't want to be the guy not producing on a team vying for its second straight World Series. He battled a back injury and started the year on the disabled list before posting an 8.10 ERA in seven April games.

But since then, his ERA is at 1.54 with only 32 hits in 41 innings.

"When he started out this year, I was getting to know him, he was getting to know us," Maddon said. "He's really quiet on the surface, but an ingratiating, under-the-surface fellow. He's got a great personality.

"I wanna believe the way we do things has permitted him to be himself. And I think because of that, you're seeing the best side of him pitching-wise."

Duensing raved about the Cubs' pitching infrastructure, giving credit to pitching coach Chris Bosio, catching/gameplanning coach Mike Borzello and bullpen coach Lester Strode.

He's also fit in seamlessly with his teammates, who are doing everything they can to help keep Duensing going strong.

Even telling him he stinks.

"He's asked us not to say anything good about him," Davis said. "We keep telling him his stuff is no good and he stinks. He doesn't want to hear none of it, which is good. That's how you should think.

"People don't wanna hear they're doing good. Just to keep him away from it. You always wanna be able to live between both [good and bad] thoughts."

The Cubs bullpen has been under scrutiny lately with some late meltdowns that have helped to hand games away. But with Uehara on the disabled list and Davis and Edwards still searching for consistency, Duensing has been the unsung hero the Cubs bullpen has needed.

Even if nobody's really noticed.

"The other day, I walked out with Addison Russell," Duensing said. "Obviously, everybody's yelling for Addy and then as you walk by, you hear, 'Hey, who was that guy?'

"But it doesn't matter. That's good. If I'm doing my job, then no one knows I'm there, which is the way it should be. As long as I'm not getting recognized that's probably a good thing, so I'll take that.

"But maybe I'll start wearing my jersey out in public or something. I think I'm one of the most generic-looking human beings of all time or something."

Is Joe Maddon covering for Wade Davis? Where do Cubs go from here?

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USA TODAY

Is Joe Maddon covering for Wade Davis? Where do Cubs go from here?

Is Cubs manager Joe Maddon taking the heat and covering for Wade Davis while the All-Star closer deals with atypical soreness in his right arm?

“No, no,” Maddon said Tuesday when asked if Davis felt anything unusual that lingered into the National League Championship Series after last week’s all-out effort eliminated the Washington Nationals from the divisional round.

The Los Angeles Dodgers took a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven bullpen battle without Davis throwing a single pitch, the backlash from Cubs fans, Twitter and the national media again putting Maddon on the defensive, the year after he got second-guessed for pushing Aroldis Chapman so hard during the World Series.

This NLCS truly is a bizarro world, with Maddon comparing the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax, getting so little benefit of the doubt – the Cubs really did beat the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 – and working the baseball term “dry-hump” into one answer during Monday’s Wrigley Field press conference.

Maddon said he would have to check first with Davis – who would have almost five full days in between relief appearances – if the Cubs need a four- or five-out save in Game 3.

“Nevertheless, I always check,” Maddon said. “I can’t just assume that.”

Maddon’s Game 2 calculus on Sunday night at Dodger Stadium – sticking with lefty reliever Brian Duensing in a 1-1 game to start the ninth inning and then bringing in John Lackey to serve up the walk-off, three-run homer to Justin Turner – made you wonder if Davis was still dragging after ending Washington’s season and traveling on the overnight cross-country flight that got diverted to New Mexico for about five hours when Jose Quintana’s wife experienced a panic attack.

“I think he just got mentally exhausted,” Maddon said. “Physically, 44 pitches, he hasn’t done that in a while. But also the seven outs and what it meant and the plane ride itself, sitting on the tarmac, there was a lot of non-rest going on right there, so it was harder to recover.

“So, no, he was fine for the last game, but we set up the parameters before the game.”

Maddon is sticking with his story, that he would only deploy Davis in a save situation and not use him for one out against Turner (1.115 career postseason OPS) or have him totally warm up without the guarantee of getting him into the game.

“To put Wade in that position would be wrong on my part,” Maddon said. “We had already talked about the circumstances, so my loyalty there lies with Wade, or my decision-making lies with Wade, nobody else.

“That was a heavy day for him (in Washington). Going into the last game in L.A., like I talked about, we talked about one inning only, and not to get up and not put him in the game.

“If you get him up and sit him down, then you have no idea what it’s going to look like. My responsibility is to him, also, and to the players, so I told him that before the game, so I had to stick with our decision.”

Before finalizing the Jorge Soler trade at the winter meetings, the Kansas City Royals took the unusual step of allowing the Cubs to meet with Davis at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley and go through a physical exam. The Cubs wanted reassurances after Davis spent parts of last season on the disabled list with a forearm strain and a flexor strain.

The Cubs wondered if “dry-humping” had contributed to those injuries, and tried to stay conservative with Davis during his free-agent year, watching him convert his first 32 save chances and using him for three-plus outs only three times during the regular season, all in mid-to-late September.

“If you look at the numbers this year, I thought going into the playoffs his usage has been really good,” Maddon said. “Minimal, in a sense. We didn’t get him up hardly at all where we didn’t utilize him.

“He just wasn’t set up for it the other day. So honestly, I think he’s in really good shape right now, actually. I don’t think he could have gone those seven outs the other day if he had been overly dried up during the course of the season. He felt good. But that was above and beyond, and that wasn’t part of the game plan the other night.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Ben Zobrist shares his leadoff approach

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Ben Zobrist shares his leadoff approach

Sports Talk Live is on location at the Brickhouse Tavern at Wrigley Field to get you set for Game 3 of the NLCS. David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Jesse Rogers (ESPNChicago.com) and Bob Nightengale (USA Today) join Kap on the panel. 

Plus, Ben Zobrist and Curtis Granderson drop by to talk about the big matchup.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: