Cubs reloading with Pena, Garza, Wood

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Cubs reloading with Pena, Garza, Wood

Friday, March 11, 2011Posted: 7:30 PM
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. In nine words, Ryan Dempster summed up the entire Cubs-White Sox experience: Was that for the BP Unleaded Cup or something?

Dempsters young son was running around the clubhouse while his father spoke to the media. Outside, Carlos Pena slammed what looked like an oversized medicine ball into the ground, working out his abdominals. By the time Pena was done, he looked like he just got out of a swimming pool.

All this happened during Fridays 4-3 win over the White Sox, before the outcome was decided in front of 11,599 fans at Camelback Ranch.

The Cubs are three weeks away from Opening Day. Its more than three months until they play the White Sox in a game that matters. These two teams compete for eyeballs, advertising money and your entertainment dollar, not to mention the fights in the stands.

I heard this is like a real hard-core type of rivalry, Pena said. Its cool. As long as its all in fun, rivalries are a blast.

This winter the White Sox pushed their major-league payroll toward 125 million. They brought back World Series heroes Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski. They signed Adam Dunn. They remade their bullpen. They declared peace between Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams.

While the White Sox made waves of headlines, the Cubs slowly, quietly shopped on a budget, addressing their three offseason needs. The Cubs have committed around 133 million for 2011, which roughly represents a 10 percent drop from the year before.

These are the three big ideas that could help bring the buzz back to the North Side.
Rebuilding Carlos Pena

In January Pena flew to Dallas to work with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and put last seasons .196 average in the past. Penas now up to .200 this spring after hitting his first homer on Friday off left-hander Mark Buehrle, a good sign for a player who might have a tendency to over-analyze things.

As hitters, we have to be very careful with the way we evaluate ourselves, Pena said. That can really harm us if we focus on the wrong thing. Instead, I like to think about: How did I execute my approach? If thats a check mark and Im happy with it, then I have to pat myself on the back and build from it.

Since coming over from Tampa Bay, Pena has won over teammates with his leadership, something Derrek Lee showed more behind-the-scenes. The Cubs prioritized defense, which is the only knock on Dunn, and for one year they will take a long look at Pena.

He plays a really, really good first base, Dempster said. He talks a lot over there, lets you know where hes at. Hes just a great energy (guy) to have around the (clubhouse). He works extremely hard. Hes going to be a big addition for us. We lose one Gold Glover, but we get another one back.

Channeling Matt Garzas adrenaline

Matt Garza got so hyped up during Wednesdays meaningless exhibition game that Pena felt compelled to come over and try to calm him down. So imagine what Garza will be like before his first start against the White Sox this summer.

Because Garza is working on his fastball location, he doesnt put much stock in his 14.85 ERA thus far. The Cubs were impressed by the toughness he showed last week after absorbing a line drive and continuing to pitch.

The Cubs could be open to a long-term extension with Garza, who is comfortable here and building his relationship with pitching coach Mark Riggins.

Its still a learning curve, Garza said. Three starts (Riggins is) not going to be able to break you down right then and there. Its going to take a couple months. Its just like when you guys got your first job: Yeah, you get comfortable in three weeks, but youre not going to know everybody the first month.

Right now were just kind of feeling each other out. Im more open and I like to talk and I like to find out whats going on. Id like to hear his opinion and he knows that.

Reinventing Kerry Wood

The Cubs tell themselves that one of Ron Santos final gifts was bringing Kerry Wood back home to Chicago, a reunion that began at a funeral.

Growing up in Texas, Andrew Cashner and James Russell idolized Wood. As advertised, he has been a resource to the young pitchers, and a feel-good story for Cubs fans. But the dude can still pitch.

Its kind of like golf when you havent played for awhile, Wood said. You go out and the first front nine you shoot great, your swings great. (Then) you try to add a little bit to it and it falls apart. I hope the latter part doesnt happen, but its kind of been like that coming out of the gate. (Its) just throwing strikes and hitting spots, (trying) to calm (things) down and stay smooth.

Wood, who will turn 34 in June, has struck out eight hitters through his first four innings. Hes shown some nasty breaking stuff and unveiled a relatively new pitch.

The addition of the cutter and a damn good one, manager Mike Quade said. Wow.

Wood seems to enjoy not being the absolute center of attention anymore, on a team thats happy to let the White Sox manage runaway preseason expectations.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

This really is becoming Willson Contreras' team.

The dude is absolutely on fire right now and has almost singlehandedly lifted the Cubs back into first place.

Since the All-Star Break, Contreras has crushed four homers and three doubles while driving in 11 runs in just eight games. 

The Cubs have won seven of those games, including Sunday night when Contreras' two-run shot in the sixth inning turned out to be the game-winner that pushed the Cubs into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. (The Cubs also won the only game Contreras hasn't started since the Break.)

In the span of nine games, the Cubs have already erased the 5.5 game deficit they had in the National League Central entering the midseason break.

"He's just playing his butt off, literally, right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everything he's doing is pretty darn good. He plays with enthusiasm, also. You gotta feel that in the stands.

"There's some times he might get over-enthusiastic. I prefer toning people down as opposed to pumping them up all the time. He's doing everything. He's hitting fourth, he's catching, he's handling a really good pitching staff, he's throwing people out, he's blocking the ball really well and he's hitting homers, so God bless him."

Contreras' offense has been amazing, but Maddon credits the young catcher's block on a Wade Davis pitch in the dirt last week in Atlanta with helping to save the season. That play helped ensure a victory by not permitting the tying run to score from third base as the Cubs rattled off six straight wins to start the second half of 2017.

It's at the point now where Maddon cannot rationally find ways to get Contreras out of the lineup, even though the veteran manager is a huge proponent of rest and wants nothing more than to keep his players healthy and playing at a high level late in the season and into the playoffs.

Contreras is like the Energizer Bunny out there, hopping all around behind the plate to block balls, throwing guys out, pumping his chest, screaming obscenities at his first base coach after home runs. He even plays long toss (from the warning track in left-centerfield to about the spot the second baseman normally plays) before games with catching coach Mike Borzello.

The 25-year-old just does not turn down for anything when he's at the ballpark.

So does he ever get weary?

"I do get tired, but when I get home," he said. "When I'm here, I'm never tired. This is my job, this is what I love and you're gonna see me like that all throughout my career."

Contreras credits the Cubs coaching staff with helping him make the mental adjustments that has him in the conversation as one of the best catchers in baseball.

"He's growing up," Anthony Rizzo said. "He's really taking control behind the plate, which is nice. His at-bats just keep getting better and better and it's really fun to watch."

Contreras is on pace for 25 homers and 87 RBI, second only to Kansas City's Salvador Perez in both categories among catchers.

"He definitely has the abilities to be one of the elite catchers," Maddon said. "You gotta consider him one of the elite catchers in the National League already. Because he just does everything so well.

"The biggest next hurdle is just — without pulling him in too much — controlling his emotions a tad more without losing that enthusiasm that he has. Really understanding the game and calling the game and working his pitchers. 

"Mike Borzello does a great job with him. He started out this year and wasn't so good — missing his pitches, missing fastballs, fouling stuff off. But he stayed with it and now you see what he's capable of doing. He is really good right now and he's gonna get better."

Jose Quintana reveling in first place vibes after 'overexcited' home Cubs debut

Jose Quintana reveling in first place vibes after 'overexcited' home Cubs debut

Jose Quintana is grateful for his defense and offense picking him up.

That's not something he's used to feeling after years of borderline-laughable run support from the White Sox in games he started.

But as he made his Wrigley Field debut in a Cubs uniform Sunday night, Quintana served up three rockets in a row to the heart of the Cardinals order and all three wound up as outs.

First it was a lineout to Jason Heyward in right field where the Gold Glover leapt in the air and did something of a karate kick while catching the ball.

Another hard liner at Heyward followed before Jedd Gyorko laced a double into the left-centerfield gap. But Kyle Schwarber retrieved it quickly, made a perfect throw to Addison Russell who spun and made a quick throw to Willson Contreras at the plate to nab Matt Carpenter by a mile.

Thus endeth the first top of the first inning for Quintana at "The Friendly Confines."

"At the beginning of the game, he might've been a little overexcited," Joe Maddon said. "He was too quick with all of his actions. The pitches weren't going where he wanted them to go.

"And then I thought he settled in very well. He wasn't as sharp as in Baltimore, but he was good. He was very good."

Quintana allowed three runs on five hits and a pair of walks in six innings, recording the bare minimum requirements for a quality start. He also picked up his second win in as many outings with the Cubs when batterymate Willson Contreras hit a game-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth.

Quintana agreed with Maddon that he was a little over-exuberant in this one.

"Too many emotions for me," he said. "It was one I enjoyed a lot. I was just trying to focus on inning by inning."

This is the first time Quintana has been on a team in the playoff hunt since his rookie season in 2012 when the Sox went 85-77 and missed the playoffs.

With Sunday's win, the Cubs have moved back into a share of first place and Quintana is all about the success.

"That's awesome," he said. "First time. To come into a team like this one and get to first place, that's amazing. I want to keep doing my job."

Now Quintana will have four days to sit back, relax, strap it down and watch the Crosstown Series knowing he won't have to go in and face a bunch of guys who he called teammates just two weeks ago. 

Quintana's next start will come Friday in Milwaukee.

"He's as advertised," Anthony Rizzo said. "Really didn't enjoy facing him. When we played the White Sox, he was the guy I always hoped to miss. To have him here and his demeanor on the mound is awesome."