Mooney: Garza's always on the move

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Mooney: Garza's always on the move

Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011
Posted 8:05 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Matt Garza leaped over the first-base line as he walked to the mound at HoHoKam Park. He appears to be in constant motion.

You rarely see him killing time at his locker. He yells out to the other side of the clubhouse to ask a question. The other day he reluctantly stopped to do a quick interview with a national columnist right there in the middle of the room, no need to find a more quiet space.

Landing Garza became close to an obsession for Jim Hendry. The Cubs general manager spoke with Andrew Friedman, his counterpart in Tampa Bay, basically every day except Christmas and New Years for a month while trying to close the deal.

Hendry sat in the first row watching on a 49-degree Sunday afternoon. Garza didnt throw a breaking ball during his two innings in this Cactus League opener.

Coco Crisp drove one pitch into the right-field bullpen for a grand slam. Matt Carson crushed another off the green batters eye, 410 feet out in center. It ended in a 15-7 loss to the Oakland As in front of 6,892 fans.

The ball felt good coming out of my hand, Garza said. I felt like I was very explosive toward home plate. Everything that needs to be there is there. Location will come with time and more innings. Im not disappointed. Im pretty upbeat about it.

Garza had already moved on from his final line: five runs on five hits in two innings. Its hard to sweat those numbers when youve been an ALCS MVP.

Mike Quade didnt watch Garza throw a single pitch in bullpen sessions or batting practice during the two weeks the Cubs trained at Fitch Park. The manager had read all the reports on Garza, but mostly wanted to see how he carried himself.

Hes almost more wired than I am, Quade said. Hes going a mile a minute.

You combine talent with energy with what looks like really good work ethic does it get any better than that?

Garza paused long enough Sunday morning to watch episodes of The Simpsons and The Office on an iPad-type device. Headphones plugged into his ears, he leaned back in his chair with his legs on a water fountain.

Hes always laughing, always smiling, said first baseman Carlos Pena, a teammate in Tampa Bay. (But) when he gets on the mound, (he) wants to beat the other team so bad and dominate. Its just cool to see how he can turn it on like that. You think hes just unapproachable, the next thing you know hes just the friendliest guy.

But this doesnt seem like someone who sits still for long. A Twins first-round pick made it to the majors by his second professional season, rising from Class-A Fort Myers to Double-A New Britain to Triple-A Rochester to Minnesota in 2006. Hes still only 27 and has already been traded twice.

I was watching him (the other day) in the bullpen at 8:15 in the morning and he was just as intense there as he would be at 7 at night, catcher Koyie Hill said. A lot of that is just adrenaline, which is good. Coming to a new place, hes excited. Hopefully it doesnt wear off. I dont think it will. I dont see it happening.

Garza has said that hes not playing to the trade, which cost the Cubs some of the best prospects in their system. But it wasnt a complete win-now move, because Garza is under team control through 2013. So in time this should be his manager, his team, his league.

On Sunday Garza even got the first hit he could remember. Someone supposedly threw the ball into the Cubs dugout. He was laughing about that. The pitching numbers didnt matter.

It was a good jumping-off point, Garza said.

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

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

Joe Maddon gave an unforgettable shout-out to his blue-collar hometown during his first press conference as Cubs manager at The Cubby Bear, promising to buy the first round of drinks at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee.

Maddon dropped the microphone for a moment, and then picked it back up to make a final announcement before exiting stage left: “That’s a shot and a beer! That’s the Hazleton way!”

The faded city from Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region that Cubs fans first heard about in November 2014 – and became a go-to reference point during so many of Maddon’s daily media sessions – will get a national spotlight on NBC News’ “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.”

NBC correspondent Harry Smith shadowed Maddon and traveled to Hazleton for a magazine-style piece that will air Sunday at 6 p.m., just before the Cubs play the rival St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Maddon – who has visited the White House twice within the last six-plus months and sat down with Charlie Rose while the team was in New York in June – wants a focus on his Hazleton Integration Project and how that community organization is creating educational opportunities and trying to help the next wave of immigrants assimilate.       

“They’re going to save our town,” Maddon tells NBC. “You have two options right here. Either you get on board and help us as we’re moving this thing along or you’re going to die. And when you die and go away, then you’re going to get out of the way. You’re not going to be part of the problem anymore. So, it’s either help or die.”

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

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USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

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After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”