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.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.