Cubs

Wade Davis is the big-game hunter Cubs need now - and maybe in the future

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USA TODAY

Wade Davis is the big-game hunter Cubs need now - and maybe in the future

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The origin story of Wade Davis transforming into a dominant closer goes back several years ago and involves a black bear on Canadian hunting grounds about 90 minutes outside of Toronto.

This is the rare animal that didn’t make the video tribute the Tampa Bay Rays cut for Cubs manager Joe Maddon when their ex-zookeeper returned this week to Tropicana Field. But if Davis could stay cool facing a 300-something-pound beast, Maddon reasoned, then a late-inning jam shouldn’t seem so daunting.

“You don’t get much reaction from Wade,” Dave Martinez, Maddon’s longtime bench coach, said on the Cubs Talk podcast. “What you see is what you get. I (asked): ‘Hey, I got a place to go bear hunting, you guys want to go?’

“If you can imagine (Wade) and Jeff Niemann — Jeff Niemann’s 6-10 — they sat up in a tree stand. They saw a black bear come out and he shot it. I wish we had the video. The video’s floating around somewhere.

“We were just talking about it the other day. (Former Rays travel director) Jeff Ziegler went with us, too, and he never did get his bear rug. And he got a little bent out of shape about it.”

Martinez doesn’t know where that trophy wound up. But Davis remains the big-game hunter the Cubs need now — and maybe for the future.

“I’m not thinking past the next two weeks, honestly,” team president Theo Epstein said. “It’s bad form to be talking about offseason stuff at this time of the year.

“He’s had a great year. He’s been perfect in save situations. He’s been a leader out there. Any team would love to have him. But we’re not into the winter yet.”

Are the Cubs willing to pay the price for an All-Star, World-Series-tested closer? Can they afford not to?

Epstein’s front office has been philosophically opposed to making long-term investments in closers. But the Cubs are running out of young hitters to trade for short-term fixes, shipping an elite prospect (Gleyber Torres) to the New York Yankees in last summer’s blockbuster Aroldis Chapman deal and getting Davis by moving a diminishing asset (Jorge Soler) to the Kansas City Royals in a winter-meetings swap.

The Cubs also haven’t seen that alternative ninth-inning solution organically develop this season. It’s hard to picture the Cubs just handing Carl Edwards Jr. the closer’s job heading into his second full season in the big leagues. Pedro Strop also looks more like a very good setup guy than a first-choice candidate to be the 2018 closer.

Justin Wilson (5.79 ERA) hasn’t distinguished himself since coming over from the Detroit Tigers at the July 31 trade deadline, the Cubs now using the lefty reliever in low-leverage/mop-up situations to help restore his game. Hector Rondon — who has 77 saves in a Cubs uniform and a checkered medical history — is dealing with right elbow inflammation.

All those moving pieces make Davis (32-for-32 in save chances) an anchor heading into the four-game showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers that begins Thursday night at Miller Park, where Jake Arrieta will be making his first start since straining his right hamstring on Labor Day and limited to 75-80 pitches.

The Cubs have a 3.5-game lead on a Brewers team that hasn’t gone away yet and a single-digit magic number (eight) to clinch the National League Central. Maddon has already signaled that he will deploy Davis for multiple innings when necessary.

“It’s a good feeling to know that he can do it,” Martinez said. “But all in all, you still have to have these other guys contribute, which they have, and get all the bullpen onboard.

“Now each moment is critical and moving forward they’re going to be put in some pretty tough situations. Each one of them has to step up and do their jobs.

“Do we count on Wade? Absolutely. But we also count on these other guys to go out there and perform.”

During the All-Star festivities in Miami, Davis said “some of that seems unrealistic” when asked about the massive free-agent contracts the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers gave Chapman (five years, $86 million) and Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million) last winter.

But this October will be another huge platform for Davis, who said it already felt like that all season at Wrigley Field.

“Every game, there’s always a constant buzz here,” Davis said. “They’re into it. They’re getting loud. It’s a great atmosphere all year long.”

Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4: The beginning of the end

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USA TODAY

Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4: The beginning of the end

Once again, baseball has proved it's far too wacky to predict.

It's not just the Cubs offense that's been slumping: I've gone 0-for-3 in predictions for each game of the NLCS thus far.

So what's the point in throwing out a prediction again? Based on the last four days, it would be easy to pick the Cubs to lose and that's what I would do, but I've been wrong the first three games, so what do I know?

I never thought the Cubs would get swept in this series. They're too talented, too experienced, too deep to get steamrolled.

But they're also completely worn out and it's showing. The mood in the locker room and the body language on the field is not at all indicative of the same team that showed legendary resiliency last fall.

That's OK. It's understandable. The Cubs have played more games and pitched more innings than any other team in baseball since the start of 2015. 

After all, they are human. 

There is something to be said for a lack of pressure. The Cubs have absolutely nothing to lose right now and they've procastinated all season, playing their best baseball only when they've been backed into a corner.

"Nobody's expecting us to come back except the guys in this room," Kris Bryant said. "I don't know if it's a comforting feeling, but it takes a little pressure off us because nobody expects us to do it."

Bryant also aptly pointed out that if any group can become the second team in baseball history to climb out of an 0-3 hole in a seven-game series, it's the team that ended a 108-year championship drought by erasing a 3-1 deficit in the World Series.

But Bryant said these things without much conviction Tuesday night in the Cubs home clubhouse. 

It looks like these guys left everything in D.C. after that epic Game 5. 

But if I'm wrong again and these Cubs are going to get another entry into the baseball history books, it starts Wednesday night against Alex Wood. Here's the lineup they'll roll with:

1. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
2. Kyle Schwarber - LF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Willson Contreras - C
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Javy Baez - 2B
8. Jon Jay - RF
9. Jake Arrieta - P

Dodgers starter Alex Wood is a pretty neutral pitcher, really good against both right-handers and lefties. So it makes sense that Almora and Schwarber are both in the lineup and atop the order, as they've had the best plate appearances of anybody on the team in this NLCS.

It also makes sense that Jason Heyward is not in the lineup, as his postseason numbers with the Cubs have been downright icky. 

Heyward deserves a ton of credit for his clubhouse leadership, that rain delay speech and incredible defense in the outfield. But he's hitting .109 with a .186 on-base percentage and .156 slugging percentage in 70 postseason plate appearances in a Cubs uniform. That's a .342 OPS.

Barring a curveball with more break than his own, this will be Arrieta's last start in a Cubs uniform, which is maybe the biggest storyline of the game after the whole will-the-Cubs-swept-out-of-the-NLCS-for-the-second-time-in-three-years thing.

When Arrieta started Game 4 of the NLDS, he admitted he couldn't help but take a moment or two to look around Wrigley Field and try to take it all in. This is the place that turned his career around.

Arrieta is also a gigantic reason this Cubs team has played so many games these last three seasons, winning the Cy Young in 2015 and beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in the World Series.

It'll be great to see the reaction from the crowd and his own reaction when he steps out to the mound and whenever it is he walks off the bump to the third base dugout.

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).