Brian Duensing

Rain delay speech part deux? Cubs got together for a different kind of team meeting before Game 4

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USA TODAY

Rain delay speech part deux? Cubs got together for a different kind of team meeting before Game 4

Jason Heyward may be struggling on the field right now, but he's earning his money off it once again.

It may not have been the same empassioned speech he gave during the rain delay in Game 7 of the World Series last fall, but Heyward helped lead a different kind of team meeting Wednesday afternoon before the start of Game 4 of the NLCS at Wrigley Field.

Jose Quintana let word of the meeting slip in his pregame press conference, mentioning how Heyward, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jon Jay pulled guys together.

"A couple guys made a big impression," Quintana said. "...We haven't lost anything yet."

But the thing is, not everybody was pulled into the meeting. It wasn't all hands on deck like that World Series get-together was in the weight room of the visiting clubhouse in Cleveland.

Ben Zobrist had no idea any meeting even occurred. Same with Brian Duensing. Jake Arrieta was warming up and getting psyched (probably doing pilates or improv somewhere) for his start. 

But for the guys that were there, it was to just help get everybody on the same page.

"It definitely helps focus us," Schwarber said. "We all know what's at stake. We're not stupid. By any means that we can come together even more, that's only an advantage to us."

Schwarber said the players were just trying to bring the team even closer than they typically are, especially because there's nothing to lose right now.

"This team's already close, but if we can bring this team even closer, watch out," Schwarber said. "Things might turn the tide, whatever it is. You never know in this game. If we can just come together even more, it's only a positive thing."

Addison Russell's main takeaway from the pregame meeting was to focus on things one day at a time, not worrying about Game 5 or the weekend back in LA until Game 4 is taken care of.

"We know that our backs are against the wall," Russell said. "We know we're a great ballclub. We don't want the season to end. We gotta keep pushing.

"Whatever it takes. Being down in the series 3-0, the odds are not really in our favor, but with this ballclub, we defied the odds already once, so why not us?"

Schwarber wouldn't divulge what was actually said at the meeting, shaking his head violently from side to side to indicate he wouldn't give any further details than this:

"You guys can just know we had a team meeting." 

While we're on the topic, we're still waiting for the transcription of Heyward's now-legendary rain delay speech....

Wade Davis won't second-guess the decision that kept him on the sideline 

Wade Davis won't second-guess the decision that kept him on the sideline 

LOS ANGELES – The Cubs talked a good game on Sunday night, manager Joe Maddon explaining his ninth-inning strategy during a Dodger Stadium press conference and the defending World Series champs standing at their lockers answering positive-slant questions about how they’ve been through this before and already done the impossible.

But there was no avoiding it in the visiting clubhouse, how much better this Dodger team is now and how much this 4-1 walk-off loss stung, because the Cubs are now down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series without All-Star closer Wade Davis throwing a single pitch.

The year after Maddon took so much heat for how hard he pushed All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman – and three days removed from Davis getting the seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals – all the focus shifted to how John Lackey wound up allowing the three-run homer Justin Turner launched over the center-field wall.

“We got confidence in everybody that goes out there, so there’s no disappointment in any of that,” Davis said. “Lackey’s track record in the playoffs has been amazing. I don’t think that’s something anybody should be second-guessing.”    

Davis is a professional who wouldn’t subtly criticize a teammate or passive-aggressively criticize his manager. That’s what Twitter is for while the Cubs fly home overnight, two losses away from vacation, and talk radio on Monday morning, more than 24 hours to fill before Game 3 at Wrigley Field.     

“You have to understand when you have a guy like that coming off the performance that he had, to warm him up and not use him is equally as bad,” Maddon said. “Warm him up, not put him in the game, and then ask him to pitch maybe two innings later, that's really not good for him.

“I really was waiting for that opportunity to grab a lead and then throw him out there. That's what it was all about. There was no way he was pitching more than one, and that was pretty much it.”

Here’s how Davis – who unleashed 44 pitches to finish off the epic Thursday night/Friday morning clincher at Nationals Park – understood his pregame availability: “Help win the game whatever way we can.”

“I knew it was only going to be like a one-inning-type stint.”

Maddon sent Brian Duensing back out to begin a second inning against the Dodgers and watched the lefty reliever walk Yasiel Puig to lead off the ninth. After a sacrifice bunt and a Duensing strikeout, Maddon bet on Lackey’s Big-Boy-Game experience.

Lackey threw 27 pitches the day before and is 38 years old and has made only two regular-season relief appearances in a big-league career that began in 2002. Lackey walked Chris Taylor and watched his second pitch to Turner – a 92-mph fastball – soar out to center field and into the glove of a Dodger fan.  

“You want to be in these games,” Lackey  said. “It’s not typical the way I’m usually in ‘em, but still got to try to get the job done.”

Look, the Cubs bullpen is already in disorder and has no margin for error when the offense scores only one run and the Dodger relievers throw an eight-inning combined no-hitter in Games 1 and 2. But everything is magnified in October, when relievers become stars and all the decisions are dissected in real time on social media.

Davis never makes excuses and wouldn’t say that he’s still feeling the aftereffects from Washington.   

“Everything’s pretty taxing in the playoffs,” Davis said. “It’s just part of it. You take the ball whenever they ask you to take the ball.”

Davis – who so rarely shows emotion – laughed when a reporter asked if he could go longer than three outs again.

“You guys love that question,” Davis said. “Like I said, we’re just trying to win games.”

After talking for 90-plus seconds about a game he didn’t play in, Davis nodded and said: “We’re good.”

Five breakthroughs that pushed Cubs into playoff showdown against Nationals

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USA TODAY

Five breakthroughs that pushed Cubs into playoff showdown against Nationals

On Opening Night, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred huddled with a small group of reporters on Busch Stadium’s service level, listening to questions about what the Cubs could do for the sport’s profile (think late-1990s New York Yankees), why their personalities connect with fans (like today’s Golden State Warriors) and how Theo Epstein ranked No. 1 on Fortune’s “World’s Greatest Leaders” list (or two spots ahead of Pope Francis).

“Well, listen, I’m a good Catholic,” Manfred said. “I’m not going to comment on that one. It is Lent and all that.”

Manfred projected new-year optimism on April 2, because the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals would be on ESPN that Sunday night, and what he said then remains true now: “An iconic franchise with a great storyline is something special.”

Fast forward to October and the Cubs are still the defending World Series champs, heading into another made-for-TV matchup against the Washington Nationals after winning the National League Central by six games.

But the 2017 season didn’t at all feel like a coronation, the Cubs banging their heads against the .500 wall at 21 different points, suffering injuries up and down the roster and underachieving to a level where Epstein considered selling short-term assets like Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and All-Star closer Wade Davis if the team didn’t immediately respond after the All-Star break.

So while 92 wins and a third straight playoff appearance may have seemed preordained six months ago, the Cubs needed breakthrough moments to get into the best-of-five battle that begins Friday at Nationals Park:

• Shocking the baseball world by pulling off the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox became as much about stabilizing the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations as trying to save this season. But the Cubs accomplished both goals with that blockbuster deal, reenergizing a team that had been 43-45 at the All-Star break and 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

A low-key personality, Quintana still showed up at Camden Yards and immediately changed the clubhouse dynamics, dazzling the Cubs during his July 16 debut, an 8-0 win that became the exclamation point to a three-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. The consistent lefty handled the pennant-race pressure, going 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts after spending parts of six seasons on the South Side.

Quintana has never before pitched in the playoffs – or faced the Nationals – and will be counted on in future Octobers.

“Our guys were fired up about the trade, and they all came back really refreshed from the break,” Epstein said. “You could kind of see it in their eyes. It was just time to get going.”

• Deflecting questions about his diminished velocity, unconventional mechanics, postseason wear and tear and looming free agency, Arrieta rediscovered the kind of zone that made him the NL’s 2015 Cy Young Award winner. Arrieta’s strong July (3-1, 2.25 ERA) and lights-out August (4-1, 1.21 ERA) helped the Cubs enter September with a 3.5-game lead in the division.

Arrieta would always have an outsized influence on this season, because he’s already shown that he can carry a team and swing a playoff series, which makes his Grade 1 right hamstring strain such an X-factor against Washington.

“It’s almost like a new normal he’s trying to pitch with right now until he gets back to his old self,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s a tough injury. It’s one of those things that’s in the back of your mind all the time.

“It’s there because you know how much it hurts if you do it again. There’s that guarded approach to everything you’re doing, so you’re trying to go through your typical patterns. But in the back of your mind: ‘If I go too far, is it going to pull?’

“Nope, it didn’t pull. Then your next pitch, you go through that same mental routine. Until you get beyond it. It’s just one of those things you have to get beyond, so it’s going to take time.”

• Imagine where the Cubs would be if they had let Jorge Soler’s value completely crater and failed to close the Wade Davis trade with the Kansas City Royals at the winter meetings. Davis helped the Cubs stay afloat and find their finishing kick by converting his first 32 save chances, preventing even more negativity from seeping into the clubhouse. By importing veterans like Davis, outfielder Jon Jay and setup guy Koji Uehara, the Cubs stressed World Series experience, a sense of professionalism and never-panic attitudes.

“We have such a great vibe, and such a great culture in our clubhouse, that we’re so careful now on who we bring in, because we want to make sure that we continue that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “When you look at the three major acquisitions this winter, all these guys have been part of championship teams. They understand what it takes to win.”

• Javy Being Javy: The Cubs actually gained ground in the standings while All-Star shortstop Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis. Javier Baez started 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hit .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch. Not that Baez lacked for confidence – this is someone who got the MLB logo tattooed onto the back of his neck as a teenager – but he is ready to build off last year’s breakout playoff performance.

“Without Javy being here when Addie got hurt, it would not look the same right now,” Maddon said. “I promise you it would not look the same. The ability to plug up the middle of the field the way Javy’s done in the absence of Addison – we would not be in this position right now. That’s it. Very simple.

“It’s so important to have a legitimate shortstop. We have two legitimate shortstops and they’re both (around) the same birth year. It’s very unusual to have that. The depth to us has been so invaluable.

“Give our front office – Theo and Jed – a lot of credit to have all the foresight to plan for those kinds of things. Without Javy, we would not have this many wins.”

• The Cubs were built to withstand the war of attrition across the 162-game schedule and outlast the smaller-market teams within their division.

Kyle Schwarber wound up with 30 home runs in a season marked by a failed leadoff experiment and a demotion to Triple-A Iowa. Ian Happ put up 24 home runs and an .842 OPS during his rookie season. Backup catcher Alex Avila was good enough to be a frontline guy for the Detroit Tigers teams that won four straight division titles between 2011 and 2014. Lefty swingman Mike Montgomery (7-8, 3.38 ERA in 130-plus innings) saved the bullpen and the rotation while lefty reliever Brian Duensing (2.74 ERA in 68 appearances) will also be in Maddon’s playoff circle of trust.

But beyond depth, there will be more than enough Bryzzo, big-game experience and premium talent on this playoff roster to beat a Nationals team that still has so much to prove in October.

“I think this year there have been long stretches where kind of everybody was pulling their hair out or searching a little bit,” Epstein said. “We’ve dealt with some things this year, but answered a lot of questions. There’s always a question: ‘Can you raise your level of play when it matters most?’ And I think our guys are proving that they can.”