Max Scherzer

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

The Cubs can’t send Chili Davis out to face Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but team president Theo Epstein believes his presence will help the franchise’s young hitters next October.

Those pronounced playoff struggles against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — on top of the way the New York Mets power pitchers overwhelmed the Cubs during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep — led to a major shakeup of Joe Maddon’s coaching staff.

Firing hitting coach John Mallee isn’t really about what he didn’t do, because he worked nonstop across the last three years, overseeing an offense that actually scored more runs this season than the 2016 World Series team.

It’s more the instant credibility that Davis brings as a switch-hitter who made three All-Star teams and earned World Series rings with the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the last New York Yankees dynasty (1998-99).

Epstein initially brought Davis into the Boston Red Sox organization, hiring him as an overqualified hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the last season before sweeping changes would hit Fenway Park.

Davis spent the next six years as the big-league hitting coach for the Oakland A’s and Red Sox, working with players like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

“Chili’s well-established as one of the very best hitting coaches in the game,” Epstein said after Thursday’s staff announcements. “His philosophy and approach happened to fit with what we hope will be the next step for many of our hitters. We talked after the season about hoping to get better with situational hitting, with our two-strike approach, with using the whole field, with having competitive, team-based at-bats.

“That happens to be Chili’s core philosophy — hitting line drives to the middle of the field. Your line drives will turn into home runs. He’s excellent at teaching a two-strike approach and teaching situational hitting. He’s really good at helping to get hitters to understand when an elite pitcher’s on his game, you have to sometimes take what he gives you, and have an adjustable swing, an adjustable approach for those situations.

“He’s got the gravitas of a 19-year career, 350 homers, over 1,300 RBIs. That combined with his excellent manner and ability to communicate with players makes him a really impactful figure.”

Mallee — who grew up as the son of a Chicago cop and graduated from Mount Carmel High School — brought stability to a position that used to have the job security of the drummer for Spinal Tap.

The Cubs wanted Mallee’s data-driven approach and the ability to explain heat maps and cold zones and how pitchers would attack each at-bat. Mallee also gave the Cubs a very accurate scouting report on Dexter Fowler before making that January 2015 trade with the Houston Astros.

During Mallee’s tenure, Kris Bryant became the fourth player in major-league history to be named MVP the season after winning Rookie of the Year honors. Ian Happ kept making enough adjustments to hit 24 home runs during his rookie season (with only 26 games of experience at Triple-A Iowa). Javier Baez made great strides this year — 23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS — before an 0-for-20 tailspin to start the playoffs.

In one way, the Cubs even endorsed Mallee’s methods by promoting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines to work with Davis as the assistant hitting coach. Mallee and Haines have a Miami connection after working in the Marlins organization.

“I would like to thank the Chicago Cubs for the amazing opportunity to be part of a great tradition and organization for the last three years,” Mallee wrote in a statement. “I left a great Houston Astros organization to be closer to home with my family and to help my hometown team win a World Series.

“We did that. I have no regrets and stand by my work. I wish nothing but the best for the Cubs organization and all the amazing people I met along the way, especially my hitters. See you from across the field.”

When the Cubs talk up their culture and the first-class organization they’ve built, there’s also an unspoken, underlying coldness to it all, even while making justifiable decisions. The Cubs publicly hailed Ricky Renteria basically up to the moment Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and someone better came along.

Whether or not that will always be sustainable, Davis does have a great resume, no doubt. The Cubs are hoping Davis can help salvage the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward and rewire an offense that ranked last in batting average (.168) and on-base percentage (.240) among the 10-team playoff field. Outside of that unforgettable 9-8 thriller at Nationals Park, the Cubs scored 16 runs in nine postseason games.

“John Mallee is an outstanding hitting coach and we would not be in the position we’re in now with rings on our finger without him,” Epstein said. “Chili just happens to be, in our opinion, uniquely qualified for this group, at this moment in time, to help us get to the next level.”

Cubs get World Series flashbacks amid craziness of Max Scherzer meltdown

Cubs get World Series flashbacks amid craziness of Max Scherzer meltdown

WASHINGTON — All the beer and champagne flying across the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park, the layers of cigar smoke floating around the room and all the mind-blowing aspects to this elimination game left Cubs players feeling like they just blacked out, not sure what really happened here in Washington as Thursday night turned into Friday morning.

Have you ever experienced anything like this before?

“Yeah, Game 7 of the World Series,” said Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs first baseman laughing and being serious at the same time.

This National League Division Series absolutely lived up to the hype. A Cubs team that spent most of the regular season looking a little bored or distracted — jonesing for this adrenaline rush — found a match in the Nationals. The unpredictability of a 9-8 game that lasted 4 hours and 37 minutes could be boiled down to the fifth inning and a total Max Scherzer breakdown.

“It was bizarro world, there’s no question about it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “But it happens. It happens this time of the year.”

There’s an eerie banner facing out from the right-center-field deck at Nationals Park, a close-up shot of Scherzer’s blue and brown eyes, with a backward K and a K in each one, an artistic rendering of a two-time Cy Young Award winner with more than 2,100 career strikeouts.

Scherzer’s outsized presence loomed over this entire NLDS, from the hamstring “tweak” that would allow him to start only once in a best-of-five format, to the no-hitter he took into the seventh inning on a bad right leg in a Game 3 loss at Wrigley Field, to turning into Washington’s bullpen weapon, ready to end the reign of the defending World Series champs.

Except these Cubs are built for moments like this, the ones that will now haunt Scherzer, manager Dusty Baker and the rest of the Nationals until they outrun their reputation for underachieving in October — four first-round knockouts since 2012 — and ride in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We’ve been through it,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “In those situations, we tend to start believing we’re going to get the job done, even if it doesn’t look like we are.”

Baker was in toothpick-chewing mode as the Nationals clung to a 4-3 lead in the fifth inning. Scherzer fired six pitches at Kris Bryant and Rizzo and quickly notched the first two outs. But an NLDS that already brought you Rizzo screaming “RESPECT ME!” and Baker’s Chicago mold conspiracy theory and The Stephen Strasburg Under The Weather Game was going to get weird.

Bat-flipping catcher Willson Contreras and the pinch-hitting Zobrist knocked back-to-back singles to set up Addison Russell, who bounced a two-run, go-ahead double down the left-field line, stunning and silencing the sellout crowd of 43,849.

“You got to believe that as a club we’re just going to find a way to do it,” Zobrist said. “We’ve done it so many times in the past now that you just start believing it’s going to happen again.

“That’s what great teams do. And we were able to pull out a crazy one.”

This is where the Nationals collapsed. Scherzer intentionally walked Jason Heyward, perhaps the least dangerous hitter in this lineup. Javier Baez swung and missed a strike three that went through the legs of catcher Matt Wieters, who chased after the ball and carelessly threw it into right field, allowing another run to score. Pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella then went to first base on a Wieters catcher interference. Scherzer drilled Jon Jay’s left knee with a pitch to make it 7-4.

Score it all as ... WTF?

“I would say that this is the most fun I’ve had playing in a baseball game,” Russell said. “It ranks right up there with winning the World Series, (coming back from) being down 3-1 in the World Series.

“Just to see the fight that my team had, (how) everyone's up there top-stepping every pitch. Just to see the energy, the flow within the dugout was ... I get chills just talking about it. It was awesome.”

The Cubs didn’t exactly go into cruise control from there, but they have an internal compass for when things go absolutely bonkers, like it did early and often and late in Game 5, remembering how they got here in the first place.

While the Nationals wonder, “Wait until next year?,” the Cubs don’t think like that anymore, focusing only on the next pitch and trying to treat each one like a separate event. That’s why they will be flying cross-country overnight to the West Coast on their third straight trip into the NL Championship Series and Saturday’s Game 1 at Dodger Stadium.

“It’s not easy to control your emotions,” Rizzo said. “We’re really good at going one pitch at a time, especially in these situations. We got to keep it going now. We’re going have some fun on the plane ride. We’re going to L.A. and have some fun.”

BREATHE and the 7 biggest things as the Cubs advance to a third straight NLCS

BREATHE and the 7 biggest things as the Cubs advance to a third straight NLCS

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Holy. Cow.

Have you digested all that?

Game 5 of the NLDS turned into an absolute classic, taking 4 hours and 37 minutes to play with 14 different pitchers combining to throw 377 pitches in Washington D.C.

The end result is this: 

The Cubs are headed to their third straight National League Championship Series after outlasting the Washington Nationals 9-8.

The Cubs are now 5-1 under Joe Maddon when facing elimination in October. 

First, take a deep breath, get out of your glass case of emotion, and then try to wrap your head around the 5 biggest things from an epic night of baseball:

Big game experience

It's an overblown storyline, but it's a fact. The Cubs have experience in wacky, edge-of-your-seat, bite-all-your-nails-off-until-your-fingers-bleed October baseball games. And they somehow keep finding ways to come out on top of them.

I don't know how, in reality. Some of it is definitely luck and the breaks going your way. But the players deserve credit, too, for somehow keeping their wits about them and getting the job done juuuuust enough to win.

Max truly is mad

Cubs fans were absolutely not feeling good about things when Max Scherzer was announced as the new pitcher for the fifth inning. Ditto when he retired Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo as the first two hitters.

But then baseball happened. The weird, quirky, nonsensical sport that has imbedded itself into American culture happened.

Here's a summary of the inning that changed the fortunes of the Cubs' season:

— With two strikes on him, Willson Contreras fought to put the ball in play and reached on an infield single.

— Ben Zobrist pinch-hit, fought off some tough two-strike pitches, then blooped one into shallow left for a single.

— Addison Russell jumped on Scherzer's first offering and grounded a ball just inside the third base line for a two-out, two-run double.

— Jason Heyward was intentionally walked.

— Javy Baez reached on a dropped third strike, Russell scored on Matt Wieters' errant throw to first base.

— Pinch hitter Tommy La Stella reached on catcher's interference.

— Jon Jay was hit with a pitch, plating another run.

— Bryant finally ended the inning with a pop out to shortstop.

The inning had everything, and it had everybody triggered:

Scherzer's final line: one inning pitched, three hits, four runs (two earned), one walk, one strikeout. 

And one L.

Time for fall break

The Professor is about take his fall break. But he'll be back next week.

Kyle Hendricks didn't have his A stuff Thursday night, giving up four earned runs on nine hits, a walk and two homers across four innings. He did strike out seven Nationals and only allowed Washington to score in one inning, but it was a grind to even get through four innings.

This wasn't the same Professor we saw in Game 1, when he patiently lulled the Washington hitters to sleep.

But it was enough to get by and eat up some outs and that's what the Cubs truly needed. Hendricks found ways to shut the door on Nationals rallies at just the right time, allowing his team back into the game.

Wade. Davis.

I don't have any cute, catchy sub-head for the Wade Davis category, because he wouldn't want it any other way.

Maddon called on his guy to close out the game, bringing the closer in in the seventh inning with two on and two out.

Davis responded by striking out Ryan Zimmerman to escape the seventh-inning jam. He walked the first two hitters of the eighth inning before getting pinch-hitter Adam Lind to ground the first pitch of the at-bat into a double play. 

But then, naturally, the guy in the next bullet came to the plate.

Still, Davis got the job done by the skin of his teeth and pitched the Cubs to the NLCS.

It was his longest outing (both in terms of pitches thrown and outs recorded) since August 2013, when he was still working as a starting pitcher.

Michael F. Taylor

(The F is for "freakin.")

The young Washington outfielder did his best to carry his team the last two nights, following his backbreaking grand slam in Game 4 with a three-run shot in the second inning of Game 5. That second blast seemed to be a dagger for the Cubs early on, but that was long before things got weird. Like really, really weird.

Taylor became the first player ever to drive in a combined seven runs on back-to-back plate appearances in the postseason and became a hero in our nation's capital for it. 

But Taylor wasn't done in the second inning. He started the seventh-inning rally with a leadoff walk and scored a run. Then he drove in another run in the eighth off Davis, trying to singlehandedly will his team back into the game.

All hands on deck

Maddon has used four starting pitchers the last two games and yet still John Lackey couldn't get in either game.

Here is a list of the pitchers used by Maddon and how many outs they accounted for:

Hendricks: 12
Brian Duensing: 2
Pedro Strop: 3
Mike Montgomery: 1
Carl Edwards Jr.: 0
Jose Quintana: 2
Davis: 7

Maddon also used Zobrist, Tommy La Stella and Kyle Schwarber as pinch-hitters and Leonys Martin as part of a double switch. 

In the last two nights, the only guys who didn't enter either game were backup catcher Alex Avila and Lackey.

Like Maddon said, there is no Game 6, and he managed like it.

Cubbie occurrences? Nahh

But Nattie occurrences? Maybe...

The Nationals will head into 2018 — the final year of Bryce Harper's contract — still having not won a postseason series. 

That makes four failures in four tries for the Nats since 2012, the year they shut Stephen Strasburg down because they wanted to prioritize his arm health and figured they'd have plenty of postseason runs in years to come.

Thursday's game was absolutely crazy and sloppy. Cubs fans are used to seeing some of those wacky occurrences happen against them, but that's all changed now with a 108-year championship drought ended.

Instead, it was the Nationals who looked star-crossed, making mistakes all over the field and essentially handing the Cubs the game on a silver platter.

The end result is what figures to be another loooong winter in D.C. breaking down this specific missed opportunity.

But we live in Chicago, and Cubdom only need worry about one thing:

Onto L.A.