Brian Duensing

Explaining Wade Davis's full impact on Cubs and hidden value as a free agent

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USA TODAY

Explaining Wade Davis's full impact on Cubs and hidden value as a free agent

The Cubs understand Wade Davis cannot only be measured in saves (76 across the last three seasons) or career postseason ERA (1.40) or All-Star appearances (three years running). There is real value to the way Davis interacts with teammates, the peace of mind that comes with the ninth inning and the outsized influence those elite closers have in the playoffs.

That makes Davis such an interesting case study for a front office that generally avoids long-term commitments to closers, viewing the job as too narrow and too volatile and believing that the next great reliever can develop organically.

Maybe the Cubs will ultimately decide that they need to pour their resources into filling roughly 400 rotation innings while planning for next winter’s blue-chip class of free agents and the escalating costs for their young hitters.

Davis is 32 years old and coming off a season where he put up a career-high walk rate, got hit noticeably harder in the second half and threw 92 pitches in his last two playoff appearances.

Davis also has a 32-for-33 in save chances on his 2017 stat sheet, a World Series ring from the 2015 Kansas City Royals, a more sophisticated ninth-inning style than, say, Aroldis Chapman’s 100-mph fastball and a reputation for being a baseball gym rat and a pitcher whisperer.

“He is always trying to learn, always trying to figure things out,” said Brian Duensing, another free-agent reliever who would be a good fit as the Cubs rebuild their bullpen. “The guy’s so well-prepared. He’s got great stuff, obviously. But he’s also a guy that knows what he has. He knows the type of pitcher he is, and he’s constantly in the film room looking at video.

“He has an approach every time he faces a team. He knows what he wants to do to certain guys. He’ll even talk about it to us in the bullpen.

“He won’t talk about every hitter, but there will be two or three guys. He’s just like: ‘This guy is a prime candidate for’ – whatever, a front-hip cutter – and sure enough he faces the guy and he called the whole at-bat four innings beforehand.”

Duensing remembered being with the Royals on a minor-league deal for spring training in 2016 and how Davis subtly pointed him in a new direction.

“Literally, we were sitting next to each other and he was talking about some mechanical things (Zack) Greinke would do,” Duensing said. “(Wade) said (Greinke) would try this and this and that. I’m like: ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ So I went out and tried doing it from the left side. I’m like: ‘Oh, well, that feels way more comfortable than I had been feeling for two years now.’”

Duensing wound up earning a role with the Baltimore Orioles bullpen in 2016, parlaying that into a one-year, $2 million deal with the defending World Series champs, posting a 2.74 ERA in 68 appearances for the Cubs and becoming part of Joe Maddon’s playoff circle of trust.

“(Wade) turned my career around a little bit,” Duensing said. “I had been struggling for a while, but he helped me kind of find my release point again, and it felt comfortable to be on the mound, just by having a nonchalant conversation with him.”

Are those quiet leadership skills worth the four-year, $62 million contract the San Francisco Giants gave Mark Melancon last offseason? Probably not, but presence and intangibles do matter as the Cubs try to reboot Carl Edwards Jr., fix Justin Wilson and overhaul their bullpen while continuing to be a 90-win team that’s expected to compete for a World Series title.

“He’s just cool, calm, collected – ‘Triple Cs,’ I call him,” Edwards said. “Watching him, it’s like reading one book – ‘Three Little Pigs’ – over and over again. Sooner or later, you’re going to know exactly how to do it, and you’re going to know exactly what the story is. Just watching Wade, it actually gave me some motivation and it gave me a lot more confidence.”

The Cubs have traded for two of the game’s best closers within the last 16 months, using Chapman and Davis as short-term solutions and setting up one of their most critical decisions this winter: Can they afford to not think big again?

“Wade has been such a big factor for us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “not only in terms of how he pitches in the ninth inning, but there’s also a calmness and a consistency to him that I think is contagious to the guys in the bullpen.

“We’ve been really fortunate to have him this year. There’s no doubt there’s a disproportionate value in a bullpen in October. We’ve seen that for the last few years, and that’s not going to go away.”

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.”