Cubs

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.

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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