Historic defense a game-changer for Cubs in postseason

Historic defense a game-changer for Cubs in postseason

"Defense wins championships" is more of a football slogan, but the Cubs believe it applies to baseball, too. Throughout the 2016 season, the Cubs have posted historically good defensive numbers, to the point where they may be the best fielding team in baseball history. Now with October baseball in full swing, the Cubs are hoping that defense can carry them to the promised land.

Jake Arrieta vs. Madison Bumgarner should be a classic pitching matchup in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, the San Francisco Giants trying to avoid elimination on Monday night at AT&T Park. Focusing on run prevention, manager Joe Maddon went with a defense-first type of lineup as the Cubs took a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five battle, inserting elite defender Javier Baez at second base and moving Ben Zobrist to left field with offensive-oriented outfielders Jorge Soler and Chris Coghlan on the bench.

"Defense wins championships," pitcher Jon Lester said. "The quarterback gets all the glory, but at the end of the day, if you're allowing a bunch of points, it doesn't really matter.

"Our defense has been unbelievable all year with guys bouncing around different positions. You got Javy playing second, which was kind of different for me. I'm used to seeing him at third and [Kris Bryant] in left. So, Joe does it again, you know what I mean? It's crazy."

The Cubs did commit three errors in Game 2 on Saturday night at Wrigley Field, but one was a catcher's interference called on Willson Contreras and the other two came on the same play when Bryant bobbled Bumgarner’s grounder and then compounded his initial mistake by throwing the ball into the visiting dugout. Neither player came around to score.

With runs at a premium in the postseason, it puts defense squarely in the spotlight. For the Cubs, their historic efficiency at turning batted balls into outs has a trickle-down effect, helping give the pitching staff an air of invincibility.

"I feel like any pitch, any ball that's hit into play, the play's gonna be made," reliever Carl Edwards Jr. said after making his postseason debut in Game 2. "It takes a lot off of me and all the other pitchers knowing we don't have to go out there and constantly try to strike out everybody and waste pitches.

"We can go out there with confidence and know if the ball is put in play, the play will be made."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have a handful of players who could easily win a Gold Glove this season - Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, Bryant and Baez. But guys like Bryant and Baez may not given how much they've moved around the diamond. Maddon has pushed the idea of a new super-utility Gold Glove just for Baez, while MVP candidate Bryant played 69 games in the outfield this season.

"That's a testament to our guys," Lester said. "They go to different positions, they don't complain about it. 'KB' came up as a third baseman and look what he's done - he's played first, he's played left, he's played center.

"These guys don't complain. They just know it's for the greater good of the team and they go and play different positions. It seems to always kind of pay off for us. And I think it makes those guys better, too.

"It makes our team obviously better. But I think it makes them better just being versatile and giving us different looks, different lineup matchups and stuff like that."

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


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.