Cubs have what Nationals desperately need and Wade Davis has no doubts: ‘We’ll be there’

Cubs have what Nationals desperately need and Wade Davis has no doubts: ‘We’ll be there’

WASHINGTON – Wade Davis scanned the clubhouse near the end of spring training and called the Cubs “a crazy talented group,” counting 10 or 12 players among the best in Major League Baseball.

Davis has been as good as advertised, the All-Star closer the Cubs would have for an entire season instead of a rental like Aroldis Chapman, fueling optimism/delusions the defending champs could actually be better than last year’s World Series team.

But all that on-paper talent has translated into a 40-39 record and a high-water mark of four games over .500 (in late May). The Cubs are running a half-game behind a first-place Milwaukee Brewers team with a $56 million Opening Day payroll.

Board member Todd Ricketts – who once told a “Screw you, Matt Harvey!” story at the 2016 Cubs Convention – still called out the Washington Nationals during this week’s White House visit and told Donald Trump: “We’re going to run into these guys in the playoffs. You’ll see them crumble.”

The reality check for the Cubs is that it has become a matter of getting there. But Thursday’s 5-4 ninth-inning comeback victory –and the scattered boos at Nationals Park after another bullpen meltdown – showed how Washington could be this year’s San Francisco Giants.

That would be the team with great starting pitchers, a strong everyday lineup and the nowhere-to-turn bullpen the Cubs exploited in last year’s first-round series. That makes Davis – 16-for-16 in save chances and 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA after finishing off both wins in this four-game series – such a difference-maker if the Cubs get to October.

“I’ve been on teams before where you know their confidence is lacking,” Davis said, “and people don’t necessarily believe this year they’re that good. I don’t think you see that here on any of our guys.

“I think we’ll be there. We know what to do.”

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The Nationals (47-32) will have to do something to fix a bullpen with a 4.98 ERA and 13 blown saves or else risk wasting another season of Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer’s brilliance. Not that anyone else around the Cubs would talk trash and back up Ricketts’ prediction.

“I’m not into billboard-material quotes,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We got to worry about our own house right now, in my opinion. We’re one game over .500. That’s exactly where we deserve to be. We haven’t played well enough beyond that.

“(The Nationals) have taken care of business. These guys look great. They’ve run away with the division. They’ve lived up to their potential. And we should be looking up to them right now. They’ve played this season so far the way we should play this season.

“Hopefully, we’ll play that way the rest of the year. But right now, they’re in a much better position than we are.”

Davis – a calming presence in the bullpen and playoff-tested after getting the final out of the 2015 World Series for the Kansas City Royals – doesn’t believe in hangovers or overreactions.

“Baseball’s going to be different every year,” Davis said. “I don’t care how good you are or what you win. (This is) what the flow of the season is – how we’re playing, what we’re executing, the breaks we’re getting or not getting. It’s where we are right now, but we feel we’re in a good spot.

“I think we’ll end up being where we need to be. Everything is like a building block. You get better at certain things. And at some point, you hope you’re right where you want to be and then you take off.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.