Cubs

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

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USA TODAY

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

Wade Davis knew Bryce Harper desperately wanted to be the hero, to finally change the perception of the Washington Nationals in October and take down the defending World Series champs.

The Cubs closer noticed how hard the young superstar swung through a first-pitch cutter, a 97-win team now down to its final out, Thursday night at Nationals Park already turning into Friday morning.

Harper took the next pitch, fouled off a 94.8-mph fastball and then stared at two more (93.4 mph and 95 mph), working the count to 3-2 while Davis pushed himself toward a seven-out save, something he had never done before.

Davis, who talks to himself on the mound but never really shows his true emotions, unleashed an 89.9-mph cutter that looked like it fell off a table, Harper whiffing as the exclamation point to a 9-8 game and a fantastic National League Division Series and the start of a wild celebration.

“You’re trying to stay relaxed,” Davis said. “He put such an aggressive swing (on it) the first swing. I was kind of hoping he would stay that aggressive and maybe use that to our advantage. We got to the last pitch and he was still pretty aggressive.”

The Cubs will absolutely need that ability to be the calm in the middle of the storm, make adjustments in real time and neutralize the Los Angeles Dodgers who got a “Best. Team. Ever?” Sports Illustrated cover in late August (before losing 16 of 17 games).

Aroldis Chapman came close, but even he didn’t throw 44 pitches in a playoff game during last year’s World Series run.

It’s not a great look when the Cubs drop from the playoff roster their big move to strengthen the bullpen at the July 31 trade deadline (Justin Wilson) and add an ex-closer clearly outside Joe Maddon’s circle of trust (Hector Rondon) for this NL Championship Series rematch.

The Cubs had two chances to eliminate the Nationals and Maddon deployed a $155 million middle reliever (Jon Lester), used Saturday night’s Game 1 starter at Dodger Stadium (Jose Quintana) and pulled his top setup guy in the middle of an at-bat and after walking one hitter on five pitches (Carl Edwards Jr.).

The Cubs faced 190 total batters during that five-game series against the Nationals and 91 percent went to the playoff rotation (Kyle Hendricks, Lester, Quintana, Jake Arrieta) or the late-game bullpen (Davis, Edwards, Pedro Strop).

“Of course, we’ve got to be really mindful of Wade,” Maddon said, explaining why the Cubs would lean against adding another pitcher for the NLCS. “But you need the bench to match up like we were able to match up in some of these games — the pinch-hitting being aggressive, the defensive maneuvering being aggressive.

“It's just the way of the world right now. The days off still are beneficial, two on, one off, three on, one off. It's still beneficial regarding keeping your bullpen in order.”

The 2017 Dodgers are a more dynamic team than the one that put up a major-league worst .622 OPS against left-handed pitchers last season, boosting that total 167 points during a 104-win campaign. These Dodgers also apparently have enough depth to keep All-Star shortstop Corey Seager (back injury) off their initial NLCS roster.

Between Maddon’s reputation (fair or not) and Davis about to become a free agent, the Chapman comparisons will be coming. But maybe think of Davis as this year’s Kenley Jansen, who pitched multiple innings and covered for weaker spots in the bullpen and willingly went outside his comfort zone.

It wasn’t enough to get the Dodgers to the World Series for the first time since 1988 — and the Cubs aren’t in the business of matching almost-recording-setting contracts for closers — but Jansen did return to Los Angeles on a five-year, $80 million deal.

That is a discussion for the winter, and when the Cubs see Davis jogging out of the bullpen, they feel like their playoff run is only just getting started.

“He’s a stud,” said Ben Zobrist, who played with Davis on the 2015 Kansas City Royals team that won a World Series title. “He’s got the postseason experience. And everybody knows he’s got ice in his veins, so there’s no moment that’s going to get the best of him.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st 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.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

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USA TODAY

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.