Kansas City Royals

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

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USA TODAY

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

Wade Davis knew Bryce Harper desperately wanted to be the hero, to finally change the perception of the Washington Nationals in October and take down the defending World Series champs.

The Cubs closer noticed how hard the young superstar swung through a first-pitch cutter, a 97-win team now down to its final out, Thursday night at Nationals Park already turning into Friday morning.

Harper took the next pitch, fouled off a 94.8-mph fastball and then stared at two more (93.4 mph and 95 mph), working the count to 3-2 while Davis pushed himself toward a seven-out save, something he had never done before.

Davis, who talks to himself on the mound but never really shows his true emotions, unleashed an 89.9-mph cutter that looked like it fell off a table, Harper whiffing as the exclamation point to a 9-8 game and a fantastic National League Division Series and the start of a wild celebration.

“You’re trying to stay relaxed,” Davis said. “He put such an aggressive swing (on it) the first swing. I was kind of hoping he would stay that aggressive and maybe use that to our advantage. We got to the last pitch and he was still pretty aggressive.”

The Cubs will absolutely need that ability to be the calm in the middle of the storm, make adjustments in real time and neutralize the Los Angeles Dodgers who got a “Best. Team. Ever?” Sports Illustrated cover in late August (before losing 16 of 17 games).

Aroldis Chapman came close, but even he didn’t throw 44 pitches in a playoff game during last year’s World Series run.

It’s not a great look when the Cubs drop from the playoff roster their big move to strengthen the bullpen at the July 31 trade deadline (Justin Wilson) and add an ex-closer clearly outside Joe Maddon’s circle of trust (Hector Rondon) for this NL Championship Series rematch.

The Cubs had two chances to eliminate the Nationals and Maddon deployed a $155 million middle reliever (Jon Lester), used Saturday night’s Game 1 starter at Dodger Stadium (Jose Quintana) and pulled his top setup guy in the middle of an at-bat and after walking one hitter on five pitches (Carl Edwards Jr.).

The Cubs faced 190 total batters during that five-game series against the Nationals and 91 percent went to the playoff rotation (Kyle Hendricks, Lester, Quintana, Jake Arrieta) or the late-game bullpen (Davis, Edwards, Pedro Strop).

“Of course, we’ve got to be really mindful of Wade,” Maddon said, explaining why the Cubs would lean against adding another pitcher for the NLCS. “But you need the bench to match up like we were able to match up in some of these games — the pinch-hitting being aggressive, the defensive maneuvering being aggressive.

“It's just the way of the world right now. The days off still are beneficial, two on, one off, three on, one off. It's still beneficial regarding keeping your bullpen in order.”

The 2017 Dodgers are a more dynamic team than the one that put up a major-league worst .622 OPS against left-handed pitchers last season, boosting that total 167 points during a 104-win campaign. These Dodgers also apparently have enough depth to keep All-Star shortstop Corey Seager (back injury) off their initial NLCS roster.

Between Maddon’s reputation (fair or not) and Davis about to become a free agent, the Chapman comparisons will be coming. But maybe think of Davis as this year’s Kenley Jansen, who pitched multiple innings and covered for weaker spots in the bullpen and willingly went outside his comfort zone.

It wasn’t enough to get the Dodgers to the World Series for the first time since 1988 — and the Cubs aren’t in the business of matching almost-recording-setting contracts for closers — but Jansen did return to Los Angeles on a five-year, $80 million deal.

That is a discussion for the winter, and when the Cubs see Davis jogging out of the bullpen, they feel like their playoff run is only just getting started.

“He’s a stud,” said Ben Zobrist, who played with Davis on the 2015 Kansas City Royals team that won a World Series title. “He’s got the postseason experience. And everybody knows he’s got ice in his veins, so there’s no moment that’s going to get the best of him.”

Forget about it: Yoan Moncada's ability to play through mistakes

Forget about it: Yoan Moncada's ability to play through mistakes

Yoan Moncada could have mentally taken himself out of Friday’s game in the third inning.

The White Sox prized prospect booted a routine groundball in the frame, contributing to a long, damaging Royals rally. A few singles, a Tim Anderson error and five runs later, it seemed as if the inning would never end on the South Side.

Mercifully, the Sox were finally able to return to their dugout because Moncada refocused and refused to allow one physical error to compound. 

The skilled second baseman ranged up the middle to scoop a hard-hit Brandon Moss grounder, preventing any further damage. One inning later, he pummeled a two-run blast to center to give the White Sox the lead for good.

It’s that type of short-term memory that has impressed the Sox in his first major league showing with the club.

"I don't think he consumes himself too much in the mistake,” Rick Renteria said after the 7-6 win. “Maybe he's just thinking about what he's trying to do the next time."

Moncada’s quite polished for a 22-year-old infielder who hasn’t even played a full season in the majors. His athletic ability allows him to make the highlight-reel plays frequently, so now it's about continuing to work on his fundamentals. 

“He's really improved significantly since he's gotten here,” Renteria said. “Not trying to be too flashy. The great plays that he makes just take care of themselves. He's got tremendous ability.” 

Since being called up, Moncada has added value to what is the arguably the best second base fielding team in the MLB. Although no defensive metric is perfect, between Moncada, Tyler Saladino and Yolmer Sanchez, the White Sox second basemen lead the league with 19 defensive runs saved above average. The Pirates have the next highest amount of runs saved by second basemen with 10, according to Baseball-Reference. 

With the enormous range, though, comes the inexperience. In just 46 games, Moncada has tallied eight errors. 

"It happens to the best of them," Renteria said. "He's one of the young men, along with (Anderson) and even (Jose Abreu), who are looking to improve a particular skill, which is defending."

It serves as a reminder that the likely infield of the future still has a ways to go. 

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.”