Cubs still waiting on Fukudome to put it all together

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Cubs still waiting on Fukudome to put it all together

Friday, Feb. 18, 2011Posted: 8:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Kosuke Fukudome is the still figure on the Sports Illustrated cover. With the bat raised high above his head, his chin touches his right shoulder and his eyes stare into the distance.

Japanese characters run across the page in big print, with an asterisk: Its Gonna Happen: Kosuke Fukudome Can End the Cubs 100-Year Wait.

This is the picture of calm before a helicopter swing. By the time the May 5, 2008 issue hit the newsstands, everyone had bought into the hype of an outfielder imported for 48 million.

But perceptions change and the Cubs and their fans are no longer imagining the possibilities. It happens everywhere. Five months earlier, the same magazine had put Brett Favre on the cover in a Green Bay Packers uniform, as its Sportsman of the Year.

The huge pack of international media wasnt following Fukudome on Friday when he reported to Fitch Park. There were just two Japanese reporters waiting in the clubhouse. These are lowered expectations for a player who will rotate with Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd and Tyler Colvin in the outfield.

I dont think about the other guys, he said through an interpreter. I just need to take care of myself.

The Cubs didnt think they would be getting a platoon player and a situational leadoff hitter when they lavished that contract on Fukudome, who turns 34 in April. He hasnt yet produced more than 13 homers or 58 RBI in a season.

Fukudome is said to enjoy living in Chicago and having access to its strong Japanese community. Last fall, he bought a condo overlooking Lake Shore Drive. His four-year deal expires at the end of this season.

I would like to stay, he said, but you never know whats going to happen.

Fukudome has no-trade protection and a 13.5 million salary in 2011 that will make him difficult to move. He does not seem to be thinking about returning to Japan, saying that he will stay in the United States as long as he can play in the majors.

Cubs manager Mike Quade praises Fukudomes work ethic and the outfielder does do things to differentiate himself. Fukudome was an All-Star in 2008, has a .368 career on-base percentage and continues to be a plus defender.

Disappointment or not, I dont know, Quade said. I was thrilled with the way he finished. His first year, with the start he had, I think everybody had illusions of grandeur. Its not that easy over here. I just want to see him build on what he did last year.

Thats more difficult for a streaky hitter like Fukudome, who especially seems to need regular at-bats to get his timing down. Last years .263 average broke down like this month-to-month: .344; .253; .189; .162; .365; .210.

Lou Piniella struggled with dividing time between his outfielders last year and that issue isnt going away. Soriano has an even bigger contract than Fukudome. Byrd is coming off his own All-Star season. Colvin is being sold as one of the new faces of the franchise.

Performance will dictate a lot of that, Quade said. You think you know what you have with your three veterans and an emerging Colvin, but youre never sure. You have to stay flexible. And I think part of what I do is talking to guys and being honest with (them to give) them an idea of what Im thinking daily.

Fukudome appears to know a lot more than he lets on, and has a sneaky sense of humor. He saw a few American reporters hanging around his locker on Friday, next to his translator. Once he was finished getting dressed blue jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt he pretended to duck out the door without a word.

It was a quiet first day at work. They will all come back if he has a strong 2011.

Im definitely not satisfied with where I am, Fukudome said. But the bottom line is Im getting better little by little. I just need to put everything together.

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."