Cubs

Is Jose Quintana feeling pressure to live up to The Trade?

Is Jose Quintana feeling pressure to live up to The Trade?

Do you feel pressure to live up to The Trade?

“No, no,” Jose Quintana insisted late Wednesday night, surrounded by reporters at his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse after a football-score win (17-3) over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Sometimes, with the bad innings, I feel frustrated, because I want to try to help more. But I’m just focusing (on what’s) next.”

This game looked like it might spin out of control for Quintana, creating more questions about his state of mind, what the Cubs were thinking with that blockbuster trade and how fragile the defending World Series champs could be in October.

Even if the Cubs made that shocking deal with the White Sox while projecting the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations, nothing will be guaranteed then, and right now the rest of the National League Central is either conceding the division race or hedging for the future.

The Cubs expect the boom-and-bust periods with their offense, understanding that they earned championship rings with a pitching-and-defense formula. After a rocky first inning that led to scattered boos from the crowd of 36,620, Quintana settled down against the Pirates, looking like someone who could someday front a postseason rotation.

“I feel comfortable here,” Quintana said. “All the coaches and teammates make it easy to be here. Sometimes, it’s new for me. I’ve never been in that (position before). But I feel really good here.

“The game never changes. It’s the same game. I’m here to do my job for one reason: I want to help this team and make the playoffs.”

That is still the biggest takeaway from a wacky night where Javier Baez showed off his new braids and stole home plate: “I went too early. I messed it up. And I don’t know if you call that fixing it, but it worked.” Ian Happ almost hit for the cycle and became the sixth Cub with 20 homers this season, setting a franchise record. Kyle Schwarber blasted two homers and called out Happ for sprinting to third base on a flyball to left field.

Quintana missed those fireworks as a hard-luck pitcher on bad White Sox teams, and it will be interesting to see how he responds in the heat of a pennant race. This is the trade-deadline parallel to Jon Lester signing a $155 million megadeal and needing an entire season to feel more comfortable, except Quintana didn’t ease into this at all with six weeks of spring training in Arizona.

“I think sometimes they apply a little bit of pressure to themselves to live up to the moment,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s just human nature. I think he’s still settling in. He’s such a wonderful young man and he’s so concerned. He wants to do well. But, listen, I know he’s going to be really good for a long period of time.

“We could talk about (how) curveball command hasn’t been as good, or maybe the changeup (wasn’t) utilized enough. But the fastball location hasn’t been what it had been. And that’s what you got to figure out: Why? Things like that are very correctable. Part of it might be just because I’m trying too hard. Sometimes it’s just simple as that.”

Coming off an ugly loss to a Philadelphia Phillies team racing to the bottom for the No. 1 overall pick, Quintana gave up three singles and drilled back-to-back hitters with pitches in the first inning, putting the Cubs in a 2-0 hole.

But from the moment Quintana’s pitch hit Jordy Mercer’s right foot and forced in a run, the lefty retired 14 batters in a row – until Josh Bell drove a ball toward the top of the left-field bleachers – and 16 of his last 17. Quintana – who’s now 5-3 with a 4.50 ERA through nine starts as a Cub – lasted six innings and finished with nine strikeouts and zero walks.

This wasn’t a prove-it start as much as a confidence boost for the pitcher who’s so crucial for a first-place team that’s up 3.5 games on the Milwaukee Brewers.

“He’s just over-amped, man,” Maddon said. “This guy is still trying to make an impression for us and on us and with us. I just love his methods. He’s just such a professional. And hopefully that’s going to be kind of a catapult for him right there to get back into it."

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

dustybakerfired.jpg
USA TODAY

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

The Washington Nationals must have been sitting at home, watching the National League Championship Series and wondering: How did we lose to this team?

The Cubs poured so much physical effort, mental focus and emotional energy into those five playoff games against the Nationals that they didn’t have much left in the tank for the bigger, better Los Angeles Dodgers team that dominated the defending World Series champs in every phase and captured the NL pennant on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

By midday Friday, the Nationals announced that manager Dusty Baker will not return for the 2018 season, while the contracts for the big-league coaching staff have also expired, leaving a franchise with chain-of-command issues in damage-control mode.

This is a bitter disappointment for Baker, who needs a World Series ring as a manager to put the final bullet point on a Hall of Fame resume and still grumbles about how things ended in 2006 after four up-and-down years managing the Cubs.

Baker, 68, a former Marine, All-Star player and all-around Renaissance man with a great feel for dealing with people and managing the clubhouse, apparently couldn’t overcome last week’s elimination-game meltdown at Nationals Park, where the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory and forced Washington into its fourth first-round playoff exit since 2012.

Baker’s in-game decision-making was already under the microscope and his teams have now lost 10 straight postseason close-out games, a major-league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Nationals also needlessly subjected Stephen Strasburg to withering criticism when Baker said the $175 million pitcher was feeling under the weather — maybe because of Chicago mold and hotel air-conditioning units — and being saved for Game 5. Only to flip-flop and watch Strasburg throw seven scoreless innings in a dominant Game 4 performance at Wrigley Field.

That unforced error and yet another manager search is not a good look for the Nationals, who made the announcement through the Lerner family ownership group after general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly signaled that he expected to reach a new agreement with Baker after winning 192 games combined in two years and back-to-back division titles.

Since the franchise relocated from Montreal and abandoned the Expos logo in 2005, the Nationals have employed seven different managers and will be starting all over again in 2018, when Bryce Harper will be in his last season before becoming a free agent and probably wondering if Washington can finally get its act together.

What now for the Cubs?

What now for the Cubs?

OK, time to turn the page.

Nah, it doesn't have to be that sudden.

The 2017 Cubs season may not have resulted in a World Series, but it was absolutely a smashing success. There was a time not long ago that playing — and even losing — in the fifth game of the NLCS was a huge step.

But the Cubs now have a World-Series-or-bust mentality now and the 2017 season did not live up to those expectations.

"We're capable of more than we showed in the postseason," Ben Zobrist said.

So what now? What's next for these Cubs?

Well, quite literally: Rest. Rest is next.

"For those guys that are playing every day, they need to take the time that they need to take," Zobrist said. "Take the three weeks, month to let your body relax and heal up.

"I think from there, it's listening to your body for them. For me, I'm in a different place. I didn't play as many games as I normally play. I feel like my stamina, I have to work on my endurance and stamina to get back up to where it needs to get to where I'm capable of playing more games and not getting injuries and things like that like I had this year.

"...[Kris Bryant] and [Anthony] Rizzo, they were our horses and so they need to take more time than somebody like me does going into the offseason. They deserve to get some rest and relaxation. I think we're all very motivated going into the offseason to get back to where we're capable of playing as a team."

Other players have a different attitude as they approach the winter.

Albert Almora Jr., after his first full season in the big leagues, is anxious to get better. Immediately.

The young outfielder is planning on spending a lot of time hanging out with his wife and one-year-old son, but he isn't interested in all that much rest right now.

"[I plan] to get back to work," Almora said. "I think we have a big chip on our shoulder coming into next year."

Rizzo and Bryant, meanwhile, played 167 and 161 games, respectively, including the postseason. They combined for over 1,500 plate appearances from April 2 through Oct. 19.

Neither player has much interest in watching the Los Angeles Dodgers play either the Houston Astros or New York Yankees in the World Series.

So what will they do?

"It's always tough," Rizzo said after the Cubs were officially eliminated. "You start a journey with all these guys and at the end of the day, these last couple days, you don't take anything for granted at all.

"The stretch, the cage work. Yesterday could've been our last day. Today's obviously our last day. We gotta enjoy these moments because you don't know how long they last.

"But you make a lot of friendships along the way. This next week will be tough and kinda scratching your head on what to do."