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.

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.