Mariano Rivera

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.”    

Wade Davis is the Jedi force that prevented Cubs’ first half from being a total disaster

Wade Davis is the Jedi force that prevented Cubs’ first half from being a total disaster

Wade Davis emerged from the showers one night and walked across the Wrigley Field clubhouse with towels wrapped around his 6-foot-5, 225-pound body and a hooded face framed by a beard and a buzz cut. Cubs reliever Justin Grimm took in the postgame scene and called out to Davis: “You look like a Jedi.”

“They’re masters of what they do,” Grimm explained later.

Davis is the force that has prevented this Cubs season from being completely covered in darkness, the light at the end of the game and for the playoffs – if the defending champs even get there.   

Imagine where the Cubs would be if Davis hadn’t gone 2-0 and 16-for-16 in save chances in the first half, knowing how blown leads and late losses can do psychological damage to a team. (Remember when Carlos Marmol sparked Carlos Zambrano’s “We stinks!” rant in 2011.) Even while watching a closer at the height of his powers, the Cubs are still 43-45, 5.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in a bad division and 7.5 games out in the National League wild-card race. 

"It's like controlling the baseball with a remote," catcher Willson Contreras said. "It's just crazy the way that he pitches."

Where the Cubs were supposed to be an unstoppable franchise like “Star Wars,” Davis will be their only player representative introduced before Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Miami – and he wasn’t even a part of last year’s World Series team.

“Wade (is) an anchor,” said Joe Maddon, who will manage the NL team at Marlins Park. “Even conversationally with these guys, he’s really a good mentor, because he’s a pitcher. He talks pitching and how to get guys out and he sets the example among the rest of the group.”

The Cubs have a bullpen built for October...at a time when their rotation is responsible for 80 first-inning runs and the team has trailed in 68 of 88 games so far, blunting Davis’ impact.

“He has kind of like the John Smoltz mentality,” said outfielder Jason Heyward, who grew up with the Atlanta Braves. “He knows what it takes to be a starter. He knows how to use all of his pitches in certain situations. He knows how to set up hitters. And he attacks the strike zone.

“It just gives him another calming sense when he comes into the game late.”   

At the age of 31, Davis doesn’t have the longevity to be in the Hall of Fame conversation. This is his third straight All-Star selection after coming up as a starter with Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays and evolving into a lights-out reliever for the Kansas City Royals. But Cubs fans used to watching ninth-inning meltdowns are now witnessing one of the greatest runs ever for a closer.

Just ask catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, who was there for Mariano Rivera’s aha moment with the New York Yankees and helped the Los Angeles Dodgers convert Kenley Jansen into a pitcher.

“You expect the game to be over when all three of those guys take the mound,” Borzello said. “They’re all a little bit different. I think Wade brings a starter pitch mix to the closer role, which is a nice luxury to have. You’re talking about a guy who can spin a curveball for a strike, throw a cutter to both sides, has an explosive fastball with command. I mean, I’ve never been around that.

“That’s where he’s separate from the other two. The other two are obviously successful off of ridiculous cutters that don’t get hit, and are unlike pitches that anyone else throws. Especially Mariano. Mariano didn’t even have anything else. That’s really all he had. Kenley does have a slider. But with Wade, it’s more that he’s going to pitch. He’s going to use all his weapons.

“The other guys are coming at you with basically that one pitch and they’re saying: ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ Wade is going to come more with a pitcher’s mentality, attack your weaknesses. I’ve never seen a closer with that kind of stuff.”

Davis is almost like a phantom presence in the clubhouse, making quick stops at his locker and usually looking like he’s on the way to do something else. “He’s always got a plan with what he wants to do that day before he even gets to the field,” Grimm said. But Davis is chatty, accommodating and thoughtful when reporters approach, wondering what clicked during his transformation into one of the best closers on the planet.     

“Opportunities, obviously,” Davis said. “I don’t know that it is one thing. I think that’s the point. There’s a thousand things. There is no one way to pitch. There’s not just one you. There could be a hundred different types of yous, whatever that might be for the day, the year, whatever.

“Instead of trying to be this repetitious, consistent, same you, it’s like: ‘No, just get better at doing a bunch of different things and you’ve always got something to go to.’ There’s a thousand things. It’s not just one thing.”    

So there’s Davis doing yoga one afternoon at Citi Field before a game against the New York Mets, Maddon talking about how the Rays knew he had guts when he once hunted down a black bear during an off-day in Toronto and the guy missing when the Wrigley Field video board shows the bullpen celebrating.

“Nope, he doesn’t do any dancing. You’ll never see Wade out there,” Grimm said. “No. 1, he doesn’t come down until the fifth inning. And then usually by the time he comes down, somebody’s warming up. That’s why we started dancing behind the (mound). He’s like: ‘Hey, people are warming up, don’t be doing that.’”  

“It’s just the demeanor that he has,” said pitching coach Chris Bosio, who got a scouting report on Davis from Dale Sveum, the ex-Cubs manager and Kansas City’s hitting coach. “He’s a very prepared, very confident guy.

“Obviously, Dale and I are really close friends. Talking to him about Wade Davis and what he meant to Kansas City – he meant everything. That bullpen they had was the reason they won a World Series, the reason Kansas City made the big turnaround.”

The Jedi has one final mission before free agency, the Cubs hoping Davis can be the balance after the All-Star break amid all these forces that will either build this team back up or tear it apart.

Cubs' Carl Edwards Jr. looks to follow in Mariano Rivera's footsteps

Cubs' Carl Edwards Jr. looks to follow in Mariano Rivera's footsteps

Carl Edwards Jr. couldn't dream up a better pitcher to try to emulate than Mariano Rivera.

Not for a young right-hander who is still getting used to being a reliever with a cutter as his bread and butter pitch.

After picking up his first career save late in 2016, Edwards mentioned how he has been watching video of Rivera. At the Cubs Convention earlier this month, Edwards name-dropped Rivera again in response to a fan question and went into more detail with exactly what he's aiming to accomplish by watching Rivera tape.

Let's be clear: Mariano Rivera is inimitable. He's a once-in-a-lifetime talent and there almost assuredly will never be a better closer in Major League Baseball.

But Edwards knows that. 

"He's great. He's a Hall of Famer," Edwards said. "He goes out there like he has the world in the palm of his hand. He's very competitive; I've never seen him back down. That's one [takeaway] for myself — I'm gonna go out and never back down.

"I don't really get into trying to be like him. I just look more into how he goes about his business. That's something that I can control — how I go about my business."

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Cubs coach Mike Borzello was there with Rivera in 1997 when the now-legendary cutter was born.

It's not fair to compare Edwards' cutter to one of the greatest pitches ever, but his version is pretty nasty in its own right:

The Cubs are still searching for long-term answers in the rotation, but don't have any intentions of moving Edwards back to a role as a starter.

Like Edwards, Rivera began his career as a starting pitcher coming up through the Yankees system. But Edwards actually has a leg up on baseball's all time saves leader: Edwards' first save came in his age 24 season while Rivera didn't tally his first save until age 26 in New York.

Edwards also struck out 13 batters per nine innings in 2016 while Rivera never posted eye-popping whiff totals (a career 8.2 K/9 rate).

As Edwards gets set for what he and the Cubs hope will be his first full season in the big leagues in 2017, his maturation will be important in an age of baseball where relief pitchers have never been more valued.

Rivera pitched in the playoffs nearly every year, routinely working more than one inning and posting ridiculous postseason numbers: 0.70 ERA, 0.759 WHIP and 42 saves while taking home the World Series MVP in 1999 and ALCS MVP in 2003.

The Cubs hope Edwards will be pitching in the postseason on a regular basis, too.

For now, the 25-year-old is still reveling in the glory following the 2016 Cubs championship.

He served as honorary drummer at the Carolina Panthers game in November.

"That was pretty amazing. That's a highlight of my offseason," Edwards said.

He grew up as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan despite being a South Carolina native, but Edwards said he did get a pair of Cam Newton cleats to wear for 2017 when he and Cubs teammates like Addison Russell or Matt Szczur throw the football around in the outfield to get loose.

Edwards was also blown away by the reception from Cubs fans at the Convention — "This is my third year and every year as been better" — but still hasn't fully wrapped his mind around the ending of the 108-year drought.

"Everything happened so quick," he said. "Hopefully in the next couple weeks when I have a break, I can sit down and soak it all in."