Chicago Cubs

Stewart hoping to take advantage of second chance with Cubs

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Stewart hoping to take advantage of second chance with Cubs

While much was made about the Cubs' lack of pitching depth in the 2012 season, they also entered the winter with a big question mark at third base.

The Cubs traded for Ian Stewart last winter in hopes of cashing in on the talent that made him the 10th overall pick of the 2003 draft. But he hit just .201 in 55 games before missing the rest of the year with a wrist injury.

Stewart was non-tendered in late November, but with the free agent market at third base so thin, the Cubs brought him back for a one-year, 2 million deal (with 500,000 in incentives).

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"That was a business decision and I understood that," Stewart said. "And Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was great. I talked with him all the time during that time. He expressed that they really wanted me to come back.

"It was the business part of it that we had to work out, and we did that. I couldn't thank them enough for how well they've treated me."

Stewart, who will turn 28 shortly after Opening Day, had surgery on his ailing wrist in July and thinks he may finally be past the issues that has plagued him the last couple of seasons.

"It's been a few years since I've felt good," he said. "The last time I was fully healthy was 2010. But even then, I missed the last month with an oblique injury.

"I did well that year, and the last few years have just had lingering wrist issues. I really believe I've gotten that taken care of. A lot of credit goes to the Cubs. Just the fact that they could have easily done the non-tender and moved on, but they've done a great job of keeping up with me through the injury."

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Stewart -- who said the Cubs supported him 100 percent with the surgery -- hit 18 home runs with 61 RBI in 386 at-bats in that 2010 season and slugged 25 homers the year before. He resumed hitting in November and says it's been going "great."

"I realize the situation I'm in and the position I'm in in my career that things like that need to be done now," he said. "I really wanted to be here, too, so I figured the earliest I could show them I was healthy, the better it's going to be for my career and for them as well."

With the free agent crop so bare at third base, Stewart admitted that other teams had expressed interest in his services. But he also said there was a time after the non-tender where he was concerned about his future.

"It was very nerve-wracking because there was a time where I didn't have a job," he said. "That was kind of a scary feeling. It wasn't a point where I was coming off a great year and a free agent. I was injured and a free agent.

"It's not a great feeling and again, I go back to I'm so appreciative that what the organization did for me and that part of being job-less didn't have to last very long.

"There were obviously teams out there that needed third basemen or at least some depth in that area. But really, once the Cubs expressed what they thought of me and what they thought I could still do for the organization, it was a no-brainer."

Stewart heads into camp as the favorite for the starting third baseman gig, but Luis Valbuena -- who saw the lion's share of the time at the hot corner in Stewart's absence last year -- has been retained and prospect Josh Vitters will be waiting in the wings at Triple-A Iowa.

Still, if Stewart can regain the power he displayed in the 2009-10 seasons, his 2 million deal will be a bargain. With his solid defense and ability to work the count, he fits what the front office is looking for.

"They could have easily brought me back for a lot less, but it just shows the first-class kind of people we have running the organization here with Jed and Theo and the whole Ricketts family. Everybody that's involved," Stewart said. "I've got nothing but good things to say about them."

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

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USA TODAY

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are going to destroy Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. The rivalry has fundamentally shifted to the point where the St. Louis Cardinals are hanging around the National League’s wild-card race in a transition year and it would have been a massive failure if the defending World Series champs didn’t win this division. But there will be some symbolism to popping champagne bottles and spraying beer all over that room.

“We intend to clinch there,” Ben Zobrist said after Jose Quintana’s complete-game masterpiece in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “And I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”

Quintana has only been a Cub since the Brewers failed to close a deal with the White Sox and team president Theo Epstein swooped in to make a signature trade during the All-Star break. Quintana hasn’t yet pitched in the playoffs, but this is close enough, the Cubs winning back-to-back 10-inning games against the Brewers and shaking off a walk-off loss before the lefty faced off against Chase Anderson in front of a sellout crowd of 42,212.

Quintana gave the Cubs more data points to consider as they prepare for a probable first-round series against the Washington Nationals. The magic number to eliminate both the Brewers and Cardinals is two, with Milwaukee off on Monday and the Cubs playing a rivalry game in St. Louis that night, meaning the party goggles won’t come out until Tuesday at the earliest.

“It’s the playoffs already for this team,” said Zobrist, who again looked like a World Series MVP in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game when he launched Anderson’s first-pitch fastball into the second deck in right field for a two-run, breathing-room homer. “We’re already thinking that way.

“We’re in postseason mode right now. And we intend to continue that for the next month.”

While there are valid concerns about Jon Lester’s nosedive in performance since coming off the disabled list and the state of Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring, the focus should also be on how Quintana (7-3, 3.50 ERA in 13 starts as a Cub) could be an October game-changer for this rotation.

“Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s showing you that right now. Games like that, to me, could be kind of career-altering for a pitcher.

“When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior. It definitely fluffs it up a little bit.”

“It’s exciting to be here,” said Quintana, who allowed only three singles, piled up 10 strikeouts against one walk and hit 93 mph on his 116th and final pitch in the ninth inning. “I just try to help my team and it’s really special when you get that opportunity. It’s about winning and I have a huge opportunity here.”

In all phases of the game – dominant starting pitching, an offense that created different ways to score runs, multiple bullpen contributors and an airtight defense that committed zero errors in 39 innings – Maddon saw what he was looking for: “We reacted in a playoff manner for these four games. Our mental intensity could not be beat.”

That drifting, in-and-out focus had been part of the background when the Cubs shocked the baseball world with the Quintana trade in the middle of July. Concentration won’t be an issue at Busch Stadium. And this hangover will be real.

“It will be nice to do it there, I’ll just say that,” said Zobrist, who understands the Cubs-Cardinals dynamic as someone who grew up in downstate Illinois. “But we got to win the games.

“As John Lackey said it before (this) series: ‘This is not a small series, boys.’ We knew it was a big one here in Milwaukee. And it will be another big one in St. Louis.”

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

MILWAUKEE – As protests formed at NFL stadiums across the country, sending an anti-Trump message after the president’s inflammatory rhetoric, a group of about 11 Cubs players and coaches stood off the third-base line while a men’s a cappella group sung the national anthem before Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

The night before, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to follow in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps and kneel during the national anthem at the Oakland Coliseum, sending a jolt through a conservative industry.  

“Like I’ve always talked about, everybody’s got the right to express themselves in the manner in which they feel,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve always felt that way.”

That’s easer said than done in a team sport that doesn’t have the same outspoken culture as NBA or NFL locker rooms. It will be fascinating to see if this starts a similar movement across baseball. The Cubs are a marquee team that has already visited the White House twice since January and will likely return to Washington in October for a must-watch playoff series against the Nationals.

“I have no idea,” Maddon said. “We’re going to wait and see. And, again, if it does, that’s fine. I have no issues. I’m all into self-expression. And if a player feels that he needs to express himself in that manner, then so be it.”

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Maxwell, the son of a U.S. Army veteran who made his big-league debut last year, told Bay Area reporters this decision had been building and rooted in his own childhood in Alabama, where Trump appeared on Friday at a rally for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange and told the crowd that NFL owners should fire any “son of a b----” kneeling during the national anthem.      

“The point of my kneeling was not to disrespect our military or our constitution or our country,” Maxwell said. “My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve.

“At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here. But my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.

“This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause, but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”

Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy gives the Cubs the space to do whatever they think’s necessary to get ready for the next game. It’s freedom from: dress codes on road trips, guidelines on facial hair and overloaded mandatory batting-practice sessions.

That hands-off approach has worked to the point where the defending World Series champs could clinch a second straight National League Central title as soon as Tuesday at Busch Stadium and celebrate in front of the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not unusual to see only a small group of players, coaches and staffers standing on the field during the national anthem.

“That’s up to them,” Maddon said. “I’ve never really had a policy regarding being out for the anthem or not. A lot of times guys like to do different things right before the game begins. Sometimes, you’re on the road, you hit later and you get in later and then your time is at a premium. So I’ve never really had a specific theory about coming out for your anthem at all.”