Cubs

Cubs can't afford to abandon hope on Justin Wilson in ailing bullpen

Cubs can't afford to abandon hope on Justin Wilson in ailing bullpen

The Cubs aren't abandoning hope on Justin Wilson in the final two weeks of the season.

It's not like they have much of a choice, however.

We've officially entered the most important time of the season for the bullpen and the Cubs have a closer who's gone 31-for-31 in save chances, but there are serious question marks ahead of him.

Hector Rondon is nursing a sore elbow while Koji Uehara has a knee infection and a minor back issue. Pedro Strop has come on strong lately and Brian Duensing has been consistent all year, but Carl Edwards Jr. has had bouts of control/confidence issues this year, Justin Grimm's ERA is almost six (5.98) and Wilson has allowed 28 baserunners in 13 innings since joining the Cubs.

That's a big reason why the Cubs moved Mike Montgomery out of the starting rotation and gave Jen-Ho Tseng his first big-league start Thursday against the New York Mets.

No team can ever predict injuries, but the Cubs knew they had an issue in the bullpen leading up to the trade deadline, which is why they parted with top prospect Jeimer Candelario for Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila.

Time is running out for Wilson to correct his issues and get back to the dominant force he was with the Tigers earlier this season (2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 12.3 K/9, 13 saves). 

The bullpen issues were highlighted over the weekend as Wade Davis, Edwards and Strop were called upon to get a combined 21 outs and needed 116 pitches to do so. Both Edwards and Davis worked in all three games. If Wilson was performing at the level the Cubs expected when they acquired him, he could've taken some of the load off.

"Clearly I need to pitch better so I can pitch more," Wilson said.

Wilson and the Cubs believe Friday could've been a spark for the 30-year-old southpaw. 

When John Lackey was ejected from the game with two outs in the fifth inning Friday, Wilson was suddenly called on to face Cardinals star Matt Carpenter with runners on second and third and the game hanging in the balance. Wilson responded by striking out Carpenter on a full-count pitch, giving the Cubs offense time to come back and take the first game of the all-important series against St. Louis.

It was only one out, but Wilson called it a "step in the right direction" and believes the sudden nature of the appearance might've helped him just go out there and pitch without much time to overthink anything.

"I think coming into that situation where you have no room for error was good for him," said Avila, who entered Friday's game at the same time as Wilson when starting catcher Willson Contreras was also ejected. "Those are the situations he's been pitching in all season. There's no thought process for him as far as working on pitches, working on mechanics, things like that.

"I know he hasn't pitched well, as well as he would've liked, but coming into a situation where there's no room for error and you're really not thinking about that. You're just, 'Here it is, this is my stuff vs. you and whoever wins, wins.'

"It was a good outing on him. He looked similar and normal to me from what I had seen earlier in the year. I've always had confidence in him. He's the type of guy that you don't have to worry about if he's prepare or if the situation is too big."

A couple hours before that strikeout, Cubs president Theo Epstein discussed how one pitch or one outing is all it takes sometimes to get a guy on a hot stretch.

"The story's not written on [Wilson]," Epstein said. "He's a really quality major-league relief pitcher who's really struggling right now. 

"So what do you do with those guys? You work to get them feeling good about themselves, you work to get them locked in and you look for the right opportunity because they are always just one outing away from getting locked in and becoming a weapon again."

Prior to Friday, Wilson had given up a run in three straight outings, surrendering five runs in a span of 1.2 innings in September thanks to five walks. He entered an 8-2 game against the New York Mets last Tuesday and couldn't throw strikes, only managing to get one out before Joe Maddon was forced to make a change.

Before September, Wilson actually looked like he had gotten things smoothed out with five straight scoreless appearances from Aug. 23-31. He didn't walk a batter in 5.1 innings while striking out seven.

Epstein and the Cubs thought Wilson had turned a corner.

"Then there was a little bit of a setback," Epstein said. "I think he was starting to feel pretty good about himself. Then you get a little bit of mixed feedback from an outing or two and then you try to make adjustments when maybe the best thing to do is you try to be yourself.

"That's part of the issue — simplifying it for him, helping him believe in himself and his fastball. He's got a special fastball. He doesn't have to be too fine with it. He's an aggressive pitcher.

"Guys are working with him. He still believes in himself. He still wants the ball. Seen it before — guys get traded and you can have a really brutal month or something and one good appearance and it clicks."

Maddon admitted the Cubs are working hard to make sure they're not overwhelming Wilson with too many things to work on or too many voices in his ear.

The Cubs also admit it's at least partially a mental thing with Wilson, who has a career 3.32 ERA in six big-league seasons and has never come close to any walk issues like he's had in blue pinstripes.

With the postseason bearing down on the Cubs, will Willson be able to find a way into Maddon's circle of trust at the most important time of the year for relievers?

"He could be a linchpin to a lot of this stuff right here," Maddon said. "Look at his numbers in Detroit. They're outstanding; not just OK. For whatever reason, he's struggled a bit with his strike zone since he's been here.

"But we get this guy right, that could make a big difference down the stretch run and hopefully into the playoffs. We do need to get him back on track because he can be very influential."

When the Cubs acquired Wilson, he was one of the top relievers on the open market who came with experience pitching in the most intense part of games, four postseason appearances and a left-handed arm that approaches triple digits. 

The Cubs hoped he would be a valuable weapon in the regular season but also providing another late-inning option against the left-handed power of teams like the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers in October.

"All relievers are going to go through ups and downs over the course of the season," Avila said. "That's just part of the ebb and flow of the season. Like I've told him and a lot guys — talking to Joe too: There's gonna be a time where we need him like today and he's gonna come through and hopefully he gets hot."

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

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USA TODAY

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”

It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.

There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.

There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.

· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.

“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.

“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”

· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.

“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”

· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.

But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.

“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”

· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.

Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.

“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.

“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”

· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.

By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.

Dry humping and second-guessing: Joe Maddon defends his Game 2 bullpen decisions

Dry humping and second-guessing: Joe Maddon defends his Game 2 bullpen decisions

Joe Maddon has no easy decisions.

With the way his tattered bullpen has pitched this postseason, there's a very real possibility that any guy he calls on to pitch is the "wrong" guy or the right guy in the "wrong" spot.

For everybody wanting Maddon to ride Wade Davis as a workhorse this fall — something the Cubs skipper has already done just to get to this NLCS — remember how much flak he took for overusing Aroldis Chapman a year ago at this time.

Davis also hasn't been superhuman this postseason, allowing a pair of runs (including a homer) and seven baserunners in 4.1 playoff innings, good for a 4.15 ERA and 1.62 WHIP.

So when Maddon sat in the dugout late Sunday evening watching helplessly as John Lackey served up a walk-off homer to Tormund Giantsbane Justin Turner, the "Madd Scientist" immediately found himself in the crosshairs of Cubs fans and the media.

The first question he fielded in his postgame press conference was about not using Davis and there were several follow-ups. That and the offensive futility is about all anybody wanted to talk about after the Cubs fell down 0-2 in the NLCS.

Maddon explained Davis was available only in a save situation due to workload issues — the Cubs closer was in uncharted territory Thursday night/Friday morning, throwing the most pitches (44) and innings (2.1) he's thrown since Aug. 24, 2013 when he was still working as a starter. That's a span of 1,511 days.

"Wade knew that going into the game, it was going to be with the say," Maddon said. "We caught the lead, he's in the game. So whatever the narrative was, it's really a false narrative. He was not coming into that game until we grabbed the lead. He was not going to pitch more than three outs. That's it."

How does Maddon respond to his second-guessers?

"Doesn't matter," Maddon said. "First of all, social media, the moment I start worrying about that, I really need to retire. Second of all, that was all predetermined [Sunday] night again."

Davis also has a recent history of arm troubles (he was on the disabled list twice in 2016 for a forearm issue) and also saw his workload jump in September just to help the Cubs get to the postseason. In the final month of the regular season, Davis threw 237 pitches, 42 more than he threw in any other month of 2017. The last time he topped 200 pitches in any month was May 2015.

TV cameras showed Davis throwing in the Cubs bullpen alongside Lackey at one point in the ninth inning, leading to surprise by a huge faction of the (*looks around and whispers*) social media fanbase when the game broadcast resumed after commercials and the pitching change was to bring Lackey — not Davis — into the game.

"Wade was not warming up to come in that game," Maddon said. "Wade was probably just testing his arm at that point. We had talked about it before the game — up and in. 

"For those that aren't involved in Major League Baseball and professional baseball in general, when a guy's throwing too much, it's very important to not dry hump him, as the saying goes. Get him up and put him back down and bring him back in later. So I wasn't going to do that."

(Wow, really was not expecting to hear or write the phrase "dry hump" regarding this story.)

Maddon insists health is not the problem with Davis.

"Yes [he's healthy]. Oh yeah," Maddon said. "Listen, this guy just did yeoman kind of work — I love that word — in Washington and was not prepared to go more than three outs. I don't understand why that's difficult to understand.

"And furthermore, you have to also understand it wasn't the last game of the year or the second to last game. It was about winning eight more games. All these things are factors."

Maddon has a point. This isn't a Buck Showalter case where the Baltimore Orioles manager failed to use his best reliever — Zach Britton — in a non-save situation in a winner-take-all American League wild card game because he wanted the closer to be ready for a save.

The Cubs went down in a game that was tied 1-1 with their best reliever failing to get in the game even though he hadn't pitched in the last two days. 

But Davis can't cover every inning in relief, especially when the Cubs' two starters (Jose Quintana and Jon Lester) lasted just 9.2 innings against the Dodgers, leaving the Cubs bullpen to account for the other 8+ innings somehow.

The rest of the Cubs bullpen has to step up, too, which they did before the ninth inning of Game 2.

Still, Maddon couldn't resist getting one more defensive shot in before putting the matter to bed:

"I really hope you all understand that social media doesn't count at all," he said. "Twitter doesn't count at all. And really, as sportswriters, you should do a better job than relying on Twitter to write a story, quite frankly."

Well then.