NLDS

Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

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AP

Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

WASHINGTON – Joe Maddon plays mind games and sends messages through the media and sometimes just runs with whatever idea pops into his head.

Maddon turned on a big-picture question from a New York Times reporter in late August, essentially skipping over the comparisons between the 2016 Cubs and the 2017 Dodgers and jumping to how much he would love to face the group on the Sports Illustrated cover labeled as: “Best. Team. Ever?”

Bring it on, Maddon signaled, looking forward to when the defending World Series champs would be at full strength and saying how much he would love that matchup against the Dodgers in October.

Well, here it is, a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series, Game 1 on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, Clayton Kershaw and the rest of a $200-plus million team knowing this season will be a failure if they don’t win an iconic franchise’s first World Series title since 1988.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon explained this week in the middle of a grueling first-round, five-game series against the Nationals. “You can’t run away from any of this stuff. The question could have been about any team, not just the Dodgers.

“Pick the ’27 Yankees. Pick the ’64 Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, whatever, the We Are Family (Pirates). You just want to believe your guys can match up with anybody. And I want our guys to believe the same thing.”

The Cubs had credibility issues when Maddon made that declaration in Philadelphia during a 3-3 road trip against the last-place Reds and Phillies, part of the same overall pattern that led to a 43-45 first half and Milwaukee’s three-game sweep at Wrigley Field in the middle of September.

From that point, the Cubs buried the Brewers and Cardinals in the division race, going 15-4 to close the regular season and devastating a 97-win Washington team in the playoffs.

“That was brought up to me,” Maddon said, “and all I said was I was just agreeing with the comment. Somebody brought up the Dodgers. They could have brought up the ’27 Yankees. I was not pointing anything out.

“When that was all going on, there was a lot of nonbelievers. We have really, obviously, picked it up in the second half in general, and then I’m using Milwaukee as the benchmark. In 2015, I used the Giants in August as being that seminal moment that all of a sudden it seemed to get right. Since (then), our mental intensity has really been outstanding every game.

“I wasn’t talking about the Dodgers. Somebody else was.”

The Dodgers still have the main elements in place that held the Cubs scoreless for 21 straight innings during the 2016 NLCS — the great Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen imitating Mariano Rivera — but their roster isn’t quite as top-heavy anymore after making a trade-deadline splash with Yu Darvish and developing Cody Bellinger into a 39-homer, 97-RBI force and probably the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

While the Cubs felt like they blacked out during a crazy NLDS —  and the team’s West Coast charter flight got diverted to New Mexico on Friday morning — the Dodgers relaxed and set up their pitching after sweeping the Diamondbacks in three games.

“I can’t wait,” said shortstop Addison Russell, whose 2016 postseason could be divided into through (1-for-24) and after (12-for-40) Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. “We’re willing to take on each challenge. I know that we got another big challenge ahead of us against the Dodgers.”

Remember, the Dodgers had to play a one-run elimination game at Nationals Park on Oct. 13, 2016, using Jansen and Kershaw to nail down the final nine outs, the same urgency/desperation the Cubs showed Thursday night in using Jose Quintana and Wade Davis for the last three innings against Washington.

Will the 2017 Cubs run out of gas like the 2016 Dodgers? Can the 2017 Dodgers withstand the pressure and freak-out moments as well as the 2016 Cubs? Stay tuned.  

“They’ve been the best team in baseball since Day 1,” said Jon Lester, last year’s NLCS co-MVP with Javier Baez. “The roles are reversed. We were that team last year — and we moved on — and they’re that team this year.

“But we know going into L.A. that it’s going to be a hard series, regardless. They got a great staff. They got a great lineup, so we got to respect them. Hopefully, they respect us, and it’s a good series.”    

Remember when the Cubs had a shortstop controversy?

Remember when the Cubs had a shortstop controversy?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Flashback Friday to that time Chicago was torn on who should be the Cubs' starting shortstop.

That was fun, wasn't it?

Now, there's no question.

While Javy Baez went hitless in the NLDS (in 14 at-bats), Addison Russell powered the Cubs to victory with four RBI in Game 5, including the big blow - a two-out, two-run double off Max Scherzer to give the Cubs the lead for good.

To be sure, the Cubs don't advance to the NLCS without contributions from both Russell and Baez, with the latter changing several NLDS games with his defense and incredible instincts.

But Russell has made the shortstop "controversy" completely obsolete and it seems laughable there ever was one. (In the mind of the Cubs coaching staff and front office, there never was.)

2017 was a trying season for Russell, both on the field off.

But he will once again get a chance to showcase his skills on the highest stage the National League has to offer, doing so at Dodger Stadium where he busted out of a woeful postseason slump last October and keyed the Cubs' charge to their first World Series in 71 years.

Following Thursday/Friday's big game, Russell is now tied with Anthony Rizzo for the all-time postseason RBI lead (18) in Cubs franchise history.

Russell's propensity for the clutch hit was already legendary after the drought-breaking 2016 season (remember that grand slam in World Series Game 6?) and he's found his groove again as summer turned to fall this year.

The young shortstop delivered a clutch three-run homer on the day the Cubs clinched the division in St. Louis in late September. He also had another big three-run double in that series and added to his resume with the fifth-inning double off Scherzer

In the sixth inning of Game 5, Russell came through again, lining a ball into the left-center field gap that Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth couldn't get a glove on, resulting in a key insurance run while the dishevled Cubs bullpen tried to keep Washington's relentless offense at bay.

"The swing feels fine; the mentality's fine," a champagne-and-beer-soaked Russell said in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park early Friday morning. "The body's feeling great. It's just staying with the process and mentally getting stronger each day."

Russell looks nothing like the player who struggled with routine throws from the shortstop position and expanded the zone far too often at the plate in the first few months of 2017.

Manager Joe Maddon has talked several times over the last month about how Russell's and swagger is back.

And just in case he needed any other confidence boost, Russell is now returning the scene where he helped the Cubs end a 21-inning postseason scoreless streak with a long home run to right-center off Julio Urias in Game 4 of the 2016 NLCS.

When asked if he is ready to head back to Dodger Stadium, Russell looked up, ignored the Budweiser still cascading off his head after a fresh dose from Kyle Schwarber, and smirked.

"Oh yeah."

Wade Davis saves Cubs: ‘That’s a bad motherf----- right there’

Wade Davis saves Cubs: ‘That’s a bad motherf----- right there’

WASHINGTON – Wade Davis stood on the mound at Nationals Park and suddenly lunged forward – the way someone would throw up in a toilet – and smacked his glove against right hand three times. Davis never looks nervous or shows really any emotions, but the Cubs closer embraced catcher Willson Contreras, twirled around and got swallowed by the mosh pit once it finally ended at 12:45 a.m. on Friday in Washington.

Davis had just struck out Bryce Harper, the Nationals superstar whiffing on a cutter that broke sharply toward the dirt, the last out in a 9-8 rollercoaster and a five-game National League Division Series pushed to the limits.

“That’s a bad mother----- right there,” pitcher Jon Lester said amid the champagne-and-beer celebration inside the visiting clubhouse. “I love that guy. I’ve got to play with a lot of good closers, and he’s a bad sumb----. He proved it tonight.”

Davis already proved it with the 2015 Kansas City Royals team that rode a power bullpen to a World Series title – and during a regular season where he converted his first 32 save chances as a Cub – but even this was next-level stuff.

In an elimination game where Kyle Hendricks lasted only four innings – and in a reversal the Twitter opinion trended toward why didn’t Joe Maddon pull him sooner – the manager cycled through Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop, Mike Montgomery, Carl Edwards Jr. and Jose Quintana, Saturday’s likely NL Championship Series Game 1 starter at Dodger Stadium.

“No, we hadn’t talked about it,” said Davis, the totally low-maintenance closer. “You just kind of figure it might happen.”

Eventually, the all-hands-on-deck strategy just became Davis as the last line of defense, responsible for the final seven outs.

In the same way that Aroldis Chapman gave this team an entirely different dimension during last year’s playoff run, Davis jogged in from the left-field bullpen at 11:47 p.m., inherited two runners in a two-run game and needed only four pitches to strike out Ryan Zimmerman to end the seventh inning.   

“He’s got ice in his veins,” said Ben Zobrist, who played with Davis on that championship team in Kansas City. “He really hung in tough there for us and pulled it off.”

The Cubs acquired Davis during the winter meetings for moments like this, knowing how valuable he would be in October, even if he cashes in somewhere else as a free agent.

Davis walked Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon to lead off the eighth inning, but he doesn’t rattle easily, getting pinch-hitter Adam Lind to ground into a double play. After Michael A. Taylor’s broken-bat RBI single, Contreras and first baseman Anthony Rizzo executed a back-pick play to throw out Jose Lobaton and end the threat.

“He does a great job of turning the page,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “That last inning, in the ninth, I swear (it was like) he had just come out of the bullpen and he was a different Wade Davis. That’s unbelievable.”   

Davis mowed down the top of the Washington lineup and maxed out at 44 pitches, sending Harper and the Nationals home for the winter, because the Cubs felt like they had no other choice.

“I looked down there a couple times – no one was warming up,” Davis said. “I had to. These guys fought so hard, all season long. They fought hard in this game. The offense and the defense – everybody’s been battling – and I really didn’t want to let it happen to us then.”