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.