The eternal optimism of Carlos Pena

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The eternal optimism of Carlos Pena

Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011
Posted: 9:58 p.m. Updated: 11:44 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
Box score
VIDEO: Dempster gushes over Pena
VIDEO: Quade finds Pena clutch vs. LHP
VIDEO: Johnson describes rocket throw home

As a young boy in the Dominican Republic, Carlos Pena would run underneath the stands at Quisqueya, and be blown away when he got out of the darkness and saw the entire stadium lit up. Some 25 years later, he had the same experience at Clark and Addison.

I walk up the ramp and you see that light at the end of the tunnel, Pena said in April. You come up and its like the gates of heaven have opened when you see Wrigley Field at the end.

Tampa Bay people told the Cubs that youre going to think this is an act, until you realize that Pena is like this all the time.

This season hasnt gone as planned another fifth-place finish, a general manager fired, empty green seats but Pena has been just about what the Cubs hoped hed be on the field and in the clubhouse.

At times, Pena sounds delusional. But hes the eternal optimist. Thats why it wouldnt be surprising if he was your starting first baseman in 2012.

Pena began Wednesday hitting .135 against lefties, and .155 with runners in scoring position. So when the Reds intentionally walked Aramis Ramirez to get to Pena in the eighth inning of a tie game, he wasnt focused on the negatives.

Pena smashed the first pitch he saw from lefty Bill Bray an 85 mph changeup onto Sheffield Avenue for a three-run homer that lifted the Cubs to a 6-3 victory at Wrigley Field. The Cubs (62-81) have six home games left before what promises to be a wild winter.

I keep on saying that I wish the season was longer, Pena said. I make sure that I really soak it all in (and) really take advantage of every single second that I have (with) my teammates, with this ballclub, with this uniform at Wrigley.

Pena would be in the minority on that one the citys already checked out and looking forward to the Bears season. But hes been exactly as advertised, the good and the bad: .227 average, 26 home runs, 72 RBI, .355 on-base percentage, Gold Glove defense.

Hes got a crazy amount of picks, said Ryan Dempster, who gave up three runs in six innings and got a no-decision. Hes been unbelievable over there. (Its) not just what he does with the bat, but what he does with his glove, the energy he brings every day. Hes been a huge contributor for us and a great teammate.

Theres not a bad word to say about him. Thats the truth.

Everyone assumed Pena was a mercenary, a one-year rental. But the Cubs held onto him at the trade deadline, and pulled him back when the Yankees made a waiver claim last month. So that the next general manager would have the option of re-signing him.

Penas Zen philosophy didnt guide him to a pennant race in New York, and it will probably resonate with ownership. While everyone else wonders what chairman Tom Ricketts is up to, Pena sees another light at the end of the tunnel. Believe it or not.

I understand the hunger, Pena said. I also see the desire (to) really give this city what it deserves. I know that everyone longs to see the Cubs win. (This) organization has an extreme desire to actually bring a championship here. As far as it may look at times, I see it coming. I really do.

Cubs etc.

Darwin Barney missed Wednesdays game to be with his wife as she gives birth to their second child. Hes expected to rejoin the team this weekend in New York. Starlin Castro has reached base safely in 21 straight games. The 21-year-old shortstop leads the National League with 182 hits and is on pace to finish with 206. The Cubs and Pabst Brewing Co. announced that Old Style which has been served at Wrigley Field since 1950 will be back for the next two seasons.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for 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."