Wade Davis

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

The second-guessing of Joe Maddon jumped the shark when someone questioned why the manager didn’t pinch-hit for Kyle Hendricks – with two outs in the fourth inning of a 2-1 game the Cubs would lose by five runs to a Los Angeles Dodgers team at 110 wins and counting this year.

Maddon makes himself a target when he shows up to a Dodger Stadium press conference in a hipster jean jacket, gets ejected from two of the first four National League Championship Series games, likens the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax, lectures the media about the dangers of dry-humping and threatens to “come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap” if Curtis Granderson hits a disputed home run instead of swinging at strike four.

You won’t have Maddon to kick around anymore, because Thursday night’s ugly 11-1 Game 5 loss ended the 2017 season and turned out the lights at Wrigley Field, the Dodgers advancing to their first World Series since 1988 and looking a lot like the 2016 Cubs.

“It’s not Joe Maddon against Dave Roberts,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “It’s the Cubs against the Dodgers. And the Dodgers have played extraordinarily well this postseason. We’ve played with a ton of heart and character, but we haven’t played our best baseball.”

Why would a manager even need a jockstrap, anyway? “That was just hyperbole on my part,” Maddon said. “Everybody’s so literal. It’s baseball prose.”

The game is now dissected 140 characters at a time on Twitter, where there isn’t enough room and attention bandwidth to explain how: the Dodgers have merged their great tradition of scouting and player development with cutting-edge analytics and $200 million payrolls; beating the Washington Nationals in an epic elimination game drained the defending champs physically and emotionally; this lineup isn’t nearly as good as the one that won last year’s World Series; and trade-deadline nonfactor Justin Wilson created a huge hole in a Cubs bullpen without many good options right now.

“It’s not manager against manager,” Epstein said. “That stuff just gets under the microscope so much this time of year. It’s players performing. And when you get a lead in the series – and when you’ve got a bunch of relievers throwing well – you can make tactically aggressive decisions. Your strategies tend to work.

“When you’re in a tough spot late in the game – and you’re searching for consistency in the ‘pen – it just puts all managers in tough spots.”

Even Epstein has admitted that Maddon opened himself up to second-guessing for how he handled Aroldis Chapman and managed last year’s World Series Game 7.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Maddon summoned Wade Davis for the ninth inning in Game 2 instead of letting John Lackey face Justin Turner and then watching that three-run, walk-off homer at Dodger Stadium. We’re not quite sure if the All-Star closer really was close to full strength or just getting by with guts and intelligence. But it’s pretty obvious the better team won this NLCS.

Epstein definitely felt frustrated with the way Maddon’s team sleepwalked through a 43-45 first half. That could be a much bigger issue than any lineup choice or bullpen decision moving forward: Making sure Maddon’s positive message doesn’t get tuned out in the clubhouse and having the safeguards in place so that hands-off approach doesn’t waste a season for this extremely talented young core.

But Maddon has guided this franchise into the playoffs for three straight years – something no one else had done since Frank Chance in 1906-08 – and at a certain point all he can do is watch along with the rest of us.

“It’s not about front offices or managers,” Epstein said. “It’s about the players.”

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

"NOT IN OUR HOUSE!" a Cubs coach yelled as he walked through the media throng awaiting entry into the clubhouse.

There was Kyle Schwarber standing at his locker, emphatically saying, "we're not gonna go down quietly."

There was Jake Arrieta, already making plans for what he would do to celebrate after the Cubs beat the Dodgers in the NLCS.

What a difference a day makes.

The Cubs looked completely beat and worn down after Game 3 Tuesday night. Kris Bryant echoed the same line — "why not us?" — he delivered last fall when the Cubs were down three games to one in the World Series, but this time, it just didn't feel the same.

Bryant looked shellshocked and admitted the team was drained after the NLDS and traveling across country to get steamrolled by the Dodgers in the first two games of the NLCS.

Wednesday night, things were different.

Even though the offense still hasn't broken out. 

Even though all the Cubs' runs still came off early homers — they have yet to score in this series not off a longball.

Even though Wade Davis is unavailable for Game 5 Thursday — the Cubs haven't won a game this postseason in which Davis did not pitch.

Even though the best pitcher on the planet — Clayton Kershaw — awaited the Cubs Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

The belief was back in the home clubhouse at Wrigley, even if it was just for one day.

But was it just for one day? 

I've been saying it all fall — the only time this Cubs team has played up to their potential is when they've had their backs against the wall. Your back couldn't possibly get more against the wall when down 0-3 in the NLCS, a deficit only one team in baseball history has come back from.

Conceivably, yes, the Cubs can pull this off. They can climb all the way out of this hole and make a second straight World Series.

If any team can do it, it's the group that erased the longest championship drought in American sports history and did it in the most dramatic way imaginable.

Will the Cubs be able to pull it off? 

I have no idea, honestly. I know that's a cop-out, but screw predictions at this point of the postseason. 

There's a very real possibility the Cubs offense finally breaks out and takes one more step toward writing this team's entry into the baseball history books.

There's also a very real possibility Kershaw comes out and slams the door on any talk of Cubs magic and finally pitches his way into the World Series for the first time.

Either way, the build-up to Thurday night around Wrigleyville is gonna be fun as hell.

Here's how the Cubs will line up as they try to take down Kershaw:

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. Ben Zobrist - RF
9. Jose Quintana - P

It's interesting to see Zobrist so low in the lineup. He's never hit eighth in a Cubs uniform and his last start in that spot in the order came in 2010 with Joe Maddon on the Tampa Bay Rays.

A huge reason for Zobrist's spot so low in Thursday's game is because he hit just .179 with a .553 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2017 as he dealt through a wrist injury and other ailments that made hitting right-handed difficult.

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

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USA TODAY

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.