Cubs

If not Wade Davis, Cubs will need to find another closer with 'huge balls'

1031_wade_davis.jpg
USA TODAY

If not Wade Davis, Cubs will need to find another closer with 'huge balls'

Imagine a Cubs bullpen without Wade Davis, working under the bright lights of the World Series, trying to contain an explosive Houston Astros offense with the roof closed at Minute Maid Park.

That’s a scary Halloween thought for a manager who got second-guessed throughout October, a front office philosophically opposed to big-money, long-term contracts for closers and a fan base that now expects to be watching playoff baseball every year at Wrigley Field.

But the Cubs can’t be the team they envision — winning between 88 and 100-plus games every season for the foreseeable future and putting another World Series flag next to the iconic center-field scoreboard — without Davis or another elite ninth-inning pitcher.

“He’s got huge balls,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “No moment’s too big for him.”

Davis — who seemed to purposely avoid talking about The Streak when he set a franchise record by converting his first 32 save chances in a Cubs uniform — is about as low-maintenance and drama-free as an All-Star closer gets.

You might not remember any of those regular-season saves or his Wrigley Field warm-up music (Dr. Dre’s “Ackrite”). But Davis made a lasting playoff impression with his epic elimination-game save against the Washington Nationals (seven outs, 44 pitches) and gutsy Game 4 performance in the National League Championship Series (six outs, 48 pitches).

“He wants the ball,” Epstein said. “And he can get good hitters out, because he’s got stuff that when he executes it, it’s just about impossible to square up.”

If getting dominated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in that NLCS was an eye-opening experience — their relievers faced 58 hitters and gave up four hits and allowed zero runs in 17 innings — then the World Series should be another reminder of how much work the Cubs have to do to get back there.

While the Astros have so far been able to outhit their very shaky bullpen, Los Angeles is one loss away from a World Series failure because its relievers headed into Tuesday night’s must-win Game 6 at Dodger Stadium with a 5.32 ERA (15 total runs allowed in 23.2 innings).

Outside of Pedro Strop for an at-bat or two — and maybe Carl Edwards Jr. if he’s on that night or lefty Mike Montgomery in the right matchup — is there anyone on the Cubs roster now that you would trust to face George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa in a one-run game?

Another October with a hyper-focus on the bullpen means Davis will get paid as a free agent, the year after a record-setting winter for closers, though even he doesn’t seem to think that Aroldis Chapman’s five-year, $86 million megadeal with the New York Yankees is a realistic target.

But it’s also not realistic to think that the Cubs can take a mix-and-match approach with the ninth inning or hope an internal candidate can grow into the high-pressure job in 2018. Elite closers have an outsized influence on the contending teams the Cubs expect to be between here and 2021.

“What they’ve proven is — when you’re on the verge of extinction — how valuable they are,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Because not everybody can handle those moments. Aroldis was able to dominate. I can’t tell you necessarily that Wade has dominated, but Wade knows how to pitch to the point where he’s going to get both righties and lefties out, based on his pitch-ability.

“Chappy was more of this blunt object. He just could overpower people, but he could do it often. There are certain guys when you get really back to the wall ... there’s not many of them, but those that are out there are really, really valuable.”

Maybe the Cubs have valid concerns about a pitcher who recently turned 32 and spent parts of the 2016 season on the disabled list with a forearm strain and a flexor strain. There could be bigger needs —  like replacing 40 percent of the rotation —  and multiple holes to fill in the bullpen. But Davis went above and beyond what the Cubs could have hoped for when they traded Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals during last year’s winter meetings.

“We’d love to have Wade Davis back,” Epstein said during his year-end Wrigley Field press conference. “We all know it’s more complicated that that. Wanting doesn’t mean having. And it’s a complicated landscape in the offseason.”

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

wrigley-scoreboard-624.jpg
USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi to talk all things Chicago baseball as the Cubs take on the Braves and the White Sox look to get a win in Boston.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: