Cubs

The Streak ends as Cubs watch Wade Davis finally blow a save: ‘It’s definitely on me’

The Streak ends as Cubs watch Wade Davis finally blow a save: ‘It’s definitely on me’

MILWAUKEE – The efficient, emotionless way Wade Davis did his job helped the Cubs stay afloat during the disappointing first half of this season, a time when late-inning losses could have really damaged the clubhouse and the defending World Series champs might have collapsed.  

Standing at his locker, Davis had the same stone-faced expression on his bearded face after Saturday afternoon’s 4-3 walk-off loss, the third straight 10-inning game the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers have played at Miller Park. Because Davis had been 32-for-32 in save chances this year, the Cubs could appreciate all the heart-pounding action and how this compared to October.  

“We 100 percent won that game today, it seemed like,” Davis said in his monotone voice. “The offense and everything was incredible, coming back twice. It’s definitely on me.”

It was jarring to watch Travis Shaw drive a hanging curveball over the fence in left-center field and into the Milwaukee bullpen. Teammates waited for Shaw at home plate with Gatorade buckets after that game-winning two-run homer, showering him and tearing his jersey apart amid the mosh pit, the Brewers still clinging to their hopes in the National League wild-card race.

The perfect season already ended for Davis in the ninth inning, when Orlando Arcia hammered a misplaced 92-mph fastball that stayed just inside the left-field foul pole and landed in the second deck.

The crowd of 44,067 watched Davis blow his first save since Sept. 2, 2016, which also happened to be his first game back in the Kansas City Royals bullpen after spending more than a month on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his right elbow.

“There’s nothing to lament right there,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Another intensely good baseball game. And they got us at the end. But there’s no way, shape or form to point a finger at Wade.”

Davis wasn’t pointing a finger at Maddon and doing an Aroldis Chapman impression, but the All-Star closer did admit: “My arm was dragging a little bit.”

The Cubs had used Davis five times within the last eight days, including a back-to-back-to-back last weekend against the St. Louis Cardinals and then asking him to get five outs in Thursday night’s 10-inning comeback win over Milwaukee. Until Saturday’s comeback, the Brewers had been 0-54 when trailing after eight innings.  

“I just made a lot of bad pitches,” Davis said, who had converted his last 38 save chances and set a new franchise record to begin his Cubs career/set him up for a big contract this winter as a free agent.

Maddon, who will face another round of bullpen-management questions when the playoffs begin, had Hector Rondon warming up in the 10th inning, but the right-hander threw a scoreless inning on Friday night, his first appearance since Sept. 8 after getting treated for a sore elbow.

“If we did not score when we scored, I would have brought Rondon into the game,” Maddon said. “But once we scored, I put him back out there. It was a pretty easy equation.

“He’s your best guy. There’s no second-guessing whatsoever. He was fine to go back out there.”

What did The Streak mean to you?

“Not much,” Davis said. “I obviously wanted to win today’s game and put us in a better position than we were yesterday. So it kind of stinks, but, you know, move on from it.”

That summed up the entire mood inside the visiting clubhouse, the Cubs pointing to a dominant Kyle Hendricks start (one run in six innings), Justin Wilson auditioning for a trusted role out of the playoff bullpen (four outs) and a resourceful lineup that manufactured offense without hitting home runs.  

“It’s been a hell of a series so far,” Hendricks said.

The magic number to eliminate the Brewers from the division race remains four, while the Cardinals were at five heading into their Saturday night game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubs can’t wait to unleash Davis in October.

“There’s no difference between these three games and the games that are going to occur the next month,” Maddon said. “They were absolutely that intense.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.