BALTIMORE – It’s the middle of July and the Cubs still don’t really know what type of team they have. Sure, their fans streamed into the Inner Harbor, Baltimore’s downtown hotels and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Most of their players own World Series rings. But trading for Jose Quintana became more about 2018, 2019 and 2020 than the rest of this summer.
What’s next? Who knows? Cubs president Theo Epstein sat behind home plate during Friday’s 9-8 rollercoaster win over the Orioles, the beginning of a post-All-Star break evaluation period that will determine just how aggressive (or not) the front office and ownership will be leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.
“We have to play better,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s it. It’s plain and simple. We just have to play better baseball and become the team that everyone loves again.”
The Cubs got off to a roaring start during the first three innings against Kevin Gausman (6.39 ERA), when Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber blasted back-to-back homers into the left-center field bullpen, Ben Zobrist launched one onto the right-field patio deck and Jason Heyward crushed a ball onto Eutaw Street.
Looking like all-in buyers with an 8-0 lead, Mike Montgomery couldn’t finish the fifth inning and the Cubs almost completely trashed the early rough drafts of the feel-good stories. The bullpen that had been such a first-half strength – and needs the Quintana reinforcement and seems due for a regression – watched Mark Trumbo turn it into an 8-8 game in the eighth inning when he hammered a two-run homer off Koji Uehara.
And then Addison Russell delivered in the ninth inning, drilling Brad Brach’s 96-mph, first-pitch fastball into the left-center field seats, showing why the Cubs have so much faith in the core players they didn’t send to the White Sox in the Quintana deal.
“The front office will tell us how it is,” Rizzo said. “They’re consistent. They believe in us, just as much as we believe in ourselves. They don’t blow smoke up us, and they back it up.
“It’s a really good feeling as a player for us to come back with a brand new addition after a nice break. It’s just amazing. It’s a credit to them for pulling that off.”
The issue with this team has been putting it all together night after night after night. Epstein won’t be fooled by one uneven win over a 42-47 Orioles team. The 44-45 Cubs will try to reach the .500 mark for the 21st time this season on Saturday when Jake Arrieta faces the organization that drafted, developed and traded him before he became a Cy Young Award winner.
“It’s been that time,” Arrieta said. “We just haven’t really been able to kind of get a firm grasp on the way we’ve been playing. It’s just been kind of up and down throughout the first half. That seems like the story of the first few months of our season.
“But we obviously need to gain some ground.”
The Milwaukee Brewers won again to remain 5.5 games up in the National League Central, where everyone knows how the Cubs responded to a 97-win season in 2015 (by spending almost $290 million on free agents) and a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs last summer (by acquiring All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman).
“We have a front office that’s willing to make moves if we show them we earn those moves,” Heyward said. “That’s what you have to do if you want things to happen. Whether it’s a trade or whether it’s advancing into the postseason, you got to earn that stuff.”