Jeff Nieman

Wade Davis is the big-game hunter Cubs need now - and maybe in the future

wadedaviscubs.jpg
USA TODAY

Wade Davis is the big-game hunter Cubs need now - and maybe in the future

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The origin story of Wade Davis transforming into a dominant closer goes back several years ago and involves a black bear on Canadian hunting grounds about 90 minutes outside of Toronto.

This is the rare animal that didn’t make the video tribute the Tampa Bay Rays cut for Cubs manager Joe Maddon when their ex-zookeeper returned this week to Tropicana Field. But if Davis could stay cool facing a 300-something-pound beast, Maddon reasoned, then a late-inning jam shouldn’t seem so daunting.

“You don’t get much reaction from Wade,” Dave Martinez, Maddon’s longtime bench coach, said on the Cubs Talk podcast. “What you see is what you get. I (asked): ‘Hey, I got a place to go bear hunting, you guys want to go?’

“If you can imagine (Wade) and Jeff Niemann — Jeff Niemann’s 6-10 — they sat up in a tree stand. They saw a black bear come out and he shot it. I wish we had the video. The video’s floating around somewhere.

“We were just talking about it the other day. (Former Rays travel director) Jeff Ziegler went with us, too, and he never did get his bear rug. And he got a little bent out of shape about it.”

Martinez doesn’t know where that trophy wound up. But Davis remains the big-game hunter the Cubs need now — and maybe for the future.

“I’m not thinking past the next two weeks, honestly,” team president Theo Epstein said. “It’s bad form to be talking about offseason stuff at this time of the year.

“He’s had a great year. He’s been perfect in save situations. He’s been a leader out there. Any team would love to have him. But we’re not into the winter yet.”

Are the Cubs willing to pay the price for an All-Star, World-Series-tested closer? Can they afford not to?

Epstein’s front office has been philosophically opposed to making long-term investments in closers. But the Cubs are running out of young hitters to trade for short-term fixes, shipping an elite prospect (Gleyber Torres) to the New York Yankees in last summer’s blockbuster Aroldis Chapman deal and getting Davis by moving a diminishing asset (Jorge Soler) to the Kansas City Royals in a winter-meetings swap.

The Cubs also haven’t seen that alternative ninth-inning solution organically develop this season. It’s hard to picture the Cubs just handing Carl Edwards Jr. the closer’s job heading into his second full season in the big leagues. Pedro Strop also looks more like a very good setup guy than a first-choice candidate to be the 2018 closer.

Justin Wilson (5.79 ERA) hasn’t distinguished himself since coming over from the Detroit Tigers at the July 31 trade deadline, the Cubs now using the lefty reliever in low-leverage/mop-up situations to help restore his game. Hector Rondon — who has 77 saves in a Cubs uniform and a checkered medical history — is dealing with right elbow inflammation.

All those moving pieces make Davis (32-for-32 in save chances) an anchor heading into the four-game showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers that begins Thursday night at Miller Park, where Jake Arrieta will be making his first start since straining his right hamstring on Labor Day and limited to 75-80 pitches.

The Cubs have a 3.5-game lead on a Brewers team that hasn’t gone away yet and a single-digit magic number (eight) to clinch the National League Central. Maddon has already signaled that he will deploy Davis for multiple innings when necessary.

“It’s a good feeling to know that he can do it,” Martinez said. “But all in all, you still have to have these other guys contribute, which they have, and get all the bullpen onboard.

“Now each moment is critical and moving forward they’re going to be put in some pretty tough situations. Each one of them has to step up and do their jobs.

“Do we count on Wade? Absolutely. But we also count on these other guys to go out there and perform.”

During the All-Star festivities in Miami, Davis said “some of that seems unrealistic” when asked about the massive free-agent contracts the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers gave Chapman (five years, $86 million) and Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million) last winter.

But this October will be another huge platform for Davis, who said it already felt like that all season at Wrigley Field.

“Every game, there’s always a constant buzz here,” Davis said. “They’re into it. They’re getting loud. It’s a great atmosphere all year long.”