Cubs

Cubs have what Nationals desperately need and Wade Davis has no doubts: ‘We’ll be there’

Cubs have what Nationals desperately need and Wade Davis has no doubts: ‘We’ll be there’

WASHINGTON – Wade Davis scanned the clubhouse near the end of spring training and called the Cubs “a crazy talented group,” counting 10 or 12 players among the best in Major League Baseball.

Davis has been as good as advertised, the All-Star closer the Cubs would have for an entire season instead of a rental like Aroldis Chapman, fueling optimism/delusions the defending champs could actually be better than last year’s World Series team.

But all that on-paper talent has translated into a 40-39 record and a high-water mark of four games over .500 (in late May). The Cubs are running a half-game behind a first-place Milwaukee Brewers team with a $56 million Opening Day payroll.

Board member Todd Ricketts – who once told a “Screw you, Matt Harvey!” story at the 2016 Cubs Convention – still called out the Washington Nationals during this week’s White House visit and told Donald Trump: “We’re going to run into these guys in the playoffs. You’ll see them crumble.”

The reality check for the Cubs is that it has become a matter of getting there. But Thursday’s 5-4 ninth-inning comeback victory –and the scattered boos at Nationals Park after another bullpen meltdown – showed how Washington could be this year’s San Francisco Giants.

That would be the team with great starting pitchers, a strong everyday lineup and the nowhere-to-turn bullpen the Cubs exploited in last year’s first-round series. That makes Davis – 16-for-16 in save chances and 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA after finishing off both wins in this four-game series – such a difference-maker if the Cubs get to October.

“I’ve been on teams before where you know their confidence is lacking,” Davis said, “and people don’t necessarily believe this year they’re that good. I don’t think you see that here on any of our guys.

“I think we’ll be there. We know what to do.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The Nationals (47-32) will have to do something to fix a bullpen with a 4.98 ERA and 13 blown saves or else risk wasting another season of Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer’s brilliance. Not that anyone else around the Cubs would talk trash and back up Ricketts’ prediction.

“I’m not into billboard-material quotes,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We got to worry about our own house right now, in my opinion. We’re one game over .500. That’s exactly where we deserve to be. We haven’t played well enough beyond that.

“(The Nationals) have taken care of business. These guys look great. They’ve run away with the division. They’ve lived up to their potential. And we should be looking up to them right now. They’ve played this season so far the way we should play this season.

“Hopefully, we’ll play that way the rest of the year. But right now, they’re in a much better position than we are.”

Davis – a calming presence in the bullpen and playoff-tested after getting the final out of the 2015 World Series for the Kansas City Royals – doesn’t believe in hangovers or overreactions.

“Baseball’s going to be different every year,” Davis said. “I don’t care how good you are or what you win. (This is) what the flow of the season is – how we’re playing, what we’re executing, the breaks we’re getting or not getting. It’s where we are right now, but we feel we’re in a good spot.

“I think we’ll end up being where we need to be. Everything is like a building block. You get better at certain things. And at some point, you hope you’re right where you want to be and then you take off.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: