Willson Contreras sees Cubs playing with fire again: ‘We are back’

Willson Contreras sees Cubs playing with fire again: ‘We are back’

BALTIMORE – Where Kris Bryant laughed off the question that has been asked so many times already during this up-and-down season – “I don’t know” – Willson Contreras made the statement after a three-game sweep where the Cubs overwhelmed the Orioles with power hitting and elite starting pitching: “We are back.”

Those are the fire-and-ice clubhouse dynamics the Cubs still haven’t quite figured out yet after their World Series victory tour. But scoring 27 runs in 27 innings and watching Jake Arrieta and Jose Quintana in total control on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards gave Contreras confidence the 46-45 Cubs will finally go on the run everyone keeps waiting for.

“We are back to who we were last year,” Contreras said. “We keep battling every pitch, no matter what the score is. It feels good when you start hitting like that.”

It helped that the Orioles should be trade-deadline sellers and lined up their second-half rotation with three starting pitchers – Kevin Gausman, Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez – who now have ERAs between 5.40 and 7.01.

The day after guiding Arrieta on a night where he again looked more like an All-Star/Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher – the young catcher killed Baltimore’s first-inning rally by throwing out Manny Machado at third base – Contreras went 4-for-5 and synced up with Quintana for seven scoreless innings that featured 12 strikeouts and zero walks.    

[MORE: As advertised: Jose Quintana stars in Cubs debut

Coming out of the All-Star break, Contreras is 8-for-14 with a homer, three doubles and four RBI and already on the same page with Quintana after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox.

“Not just me – everyone needed it,” Contreras said. “The rest was needed. Everybody looks focused. Everybody looks like they have a plan with the right approach. We’re not wasting time.”

No longer the rookie catcher, Contreras knows this is becoming his team more and more now that Miguel Montero talked his way out of the clubhouse and Victor Caratini just made his big-league debut. Especially if the Cubs get hot, team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer figure to look for a veteran catcher before the July 31 trade deadline.    

“The thing about a guy like Caratini – with any young player – I’m always cognizant of not playing him enough (when) he’s still developing,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s my only concern there with him, because, listen, he can play. I’m good with him. I like him a lot, not a little bit. But what Willson’s doing right now is so significant…the majority of the playing time should go in his direction.

“With Theo and Jed, they’re going to continue to try to make us better as we get to the deadline here.”

In the meantime, Maddon will try not to run Contreras into the ground.

“It’s a beautiful thing to watch,” Maddon said. “You always want to – I don’t want to say tone him down – but you just have to be aware of not burning out. You got to be careful, because this guy just might be different. He just might be that guy that always has that fire.”

As advertised: Jose Quintana stars in Cubs debut

As advertised: Jose Quintana stars in Cubs debut

BALTIMORE – As much as the crosstown Jose Quintana trade stunned the baseball world, the full ripple effect won’t be known for years.

The Cubs now have another All-Star lefty to pair with Jon Lester through 2020 and team president Theo Epstein is already thinking about how Quintana’s team-friendly contract could create the payroll space to add another superstar and build a dynasty on the North Side.

We don’t even really know how good Quintana can be after spending almost his entire career on bad White Sox teams, never pitching in the playoffs and getting most of his exposure through MLB Trade Rumors. 

But this is exactly what Epstein envisioned when he gave up two blue-chip prospects in last week’s blockbuster deal, exactly what manager Joe Maddon hoped Quintana’s presence would do for a quiet clubhouse after an underachieving first half.      

In a dazzling debut, Quintana absolutely shut down Baltimore in Sunday’s 8-0 win, the Cubs roaring out of the All-Star break with a three-game sweep where they scored 27 runs and got the kind of pitching that can carry them into October.

Maddon didn’t hesitate when asked for his most encouraging sign this weekend: “Energy.”

“I really believe that if we play with that kind of internal fire, that energy,” Maddon said, “we’re going to win a lot of games in the second half.”

If this is how Quintana is going to respond to pennant-race pressure – and a sign that the defending champs have finally shaken off the World Series hangover – then Epstein’s front office will keep looking to add before the July 31 trade deadline and try to pack as much talent on the 25-man roster as possible.

Looking like a Game 1 starter in a playoff rotation – or Game 2 out of respect for Lester’s three World Series rings – Quintana struck out five of the first nine Orioles he faced and didn’t allow a hit until Adam Jones drove a ground-rule double into the left-field seats leading off the fourth inning.

At that point, the Cubs already had a six-run lead, the kind of offensive support Quintana rarely worked with while putting up a losing record (50-54) and getting 65 no-decisions since his big-league debut with the White Sox in 2012.

“That’s in the past right now,” Quintana said. “Honestly, sometimes I haven’t thrown the ball well, so it’s not about hitters. That happens. I’m just focused here and want to keep doing my job.

“I’m happy being here, and to see these teammates and how they play baseball. Every day is a good day, a good chance to get a W. I’m excited for that. I want to be part of that.”

Working quickly and efficiently on an 84-degree afternoon against a strong American League lineup, Quintana needed only 100 pitches to cruise through seven scoreless innings, allowing only two more singles and finishing with 12 strikeouts against zero walks.

It may have taken until Game 91 for a team that plays from behind and in scramble mode far too often, but Quintana probably put together the best pitching performance so far this season and made it look effortless.

“I really liked his routine on the mound,” Maddon said. “Really, tremendous focus per pitch. That’s what I took away from it. And then he’s able to execute. The ball had great carry at home plate. The curveball – not overusing it – using it at the right time. The changeup became more effective. But more than anything, I like the method. Deep breath, then he goes into his delivery, here comes the next pitch.”

Those 12 strikeouts matched the franchise record Matt Garza set in his Cubs debut on April 3, 2011. By early July that year, Garza said “we’re right where we need to be” after a comeback win in Washington left the Cubs 17 games under .500.

Where the Garza trade with the Tampa Bay Rays tried to patch things together and reopen a window that had already slammed shut, the Quintana deal showed a franchise that knows what it wants and where it plans to go.

“It obviously just gives us that extra confidence,” said Kris Bryant (3-for-4, 19th home run). “We have a lot of the same core that we had last year and we won the whole thing. And to add him for an extra three more years, too, I think it’s a great move.

“He’s going to be here for a while and I think we all feel really great about that.”

The Cubs are now 46-45 after being at the .500 mark 21 different times this season. The clubhouse understood the message the Quintana trade sent loud and clear: It’s go time.

“He could really be a big boom to us, there’s no question,” Maddon said. “Everybody else saw it. All the other starters saw it. We grab a lead, and then he pitched really well with a lead. There was no messing around. There were no walks. There are no bad counts.

“He made them put the ball in play and he’s punching guys out. He gets to two strikes, he was burying the curve and elevating with the fastball. He just did everything really well. Coming over from the White Sox to the Cubs, middle of the season, there’s got to be something going on there. And he handled it extremely well.”

Jon Lester breaks down Jose Quintana trade and where Cubs go from here

Jon Lester breaks down Jose Quintana trade and where Cubs go from here

BALTIMORE – Jon Lester decided to sign with a last-place Cubs team during the 2014 winter meetings, taking a leap of faith while still expecting to be in the pennant race every season on that six-year, $155 million megadeal.

As much as anyone in the clubhouse, Lester understands how team president Theo Epstein operates and what a huge hole there will be in the rotation if/when Jake Arrieta and John Lackey leave as free agents after this season.

That’s why “until 2020” jumped out at Lester after the initial shock from the blockbuster Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox wore off quickly.

“I know Theo,” Lester said before watching Arrieta shut down his old team during Saturday’s 10-3 win at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. “I know his track record. I know what he’s all about. That wasn’t going to go unaddressed.

“I was a little surprised that it happened now. Usually, a trade like that happens kind of last minute. So that’s good for us – we get those extra couple weeks with him here and get him comfortable.

“That’s probably a win-win for everybody. You don’t see trades where you don’t have to move houses. He’s pretty well-set and established, knows his way around the city. And now he’s just got to drive north instead of south.”

As much as Epstein made this deal for the future, the 2017 Cubs needed Quintana to: reinforce a rotation pushed through back-to-back playoff runs; protect an overworked bullpen; and change a clubhouse vibe that’s been off. Quintana can finish off a three-game sweep of the Orioles – and create a real sense of momentum for a .500 team – when he makes his Cubs debut on Sunday afternoon.

“Any time you make an acquisition, it’s a boost,” Lester said. “It just means that the front office and ownership believe in this team and they want us to go further. They think whatever piece it is (will) make us go.

“Any time you make a trade like that, obviously the belief is there. That just kind of gives you a little shot in the arm to say: ‘Hey, let’s get going and make this mean something.’

“As opposed to making a trade and you waste prospects for nothing, kind of like the (Aroldis) Chapman deal last year. If we don’t win the World Series, you waste prospects for basically nothing.”

Epstein made it clear that how the Cubs respond after the All-Star break will influence how aggressive he will be leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.

[MORE: Joe Maddon knows it's time to start pushing Cubs harder - except Wade Davis

Selling isn’t an option, because the Cubs are still within striking distance of the Milwaukee Brewers in a bad division and have too much on-paper talent. There is real value in all these young players experiencing more meaningful games and building up that competitive culture.

But if the Cubs get hot, then Epstein can look harder at a veteran catcher, another reliever and a starting pitcher – Sonny Gray seems out of reach – instead of sitting out the deal-making frenzy.

“That’s on us to play well,” Lester said. “Whatever he decides that we need, we need. But at the same time, the guys in this clubhouse can’t worry about what’s going on up there and who’s talking about what.

“I was part of those talks for a long time as a young guy. And it can be distracting sometimes when you see your name on the bottom line or they’re talking about it on MLB (Network) saying a team put your name into this trade.

“Nine times out of 10, it’s not even true. I know that’s difficult for a young guy sometimes. But the biggest thing is, like I’ve always said: Man, just stay in your lane. Do your job. It’s not your pay grade to worry about what Theo does.”