Jose Quintana matched Clayton Kershaw after Cubs diverted plane for his wife’s medical condition

Jose Quintana matched Clayton Kershaw after Cubs diverted plane for his wife’s medical condition

LOS ANGELES – What a physically grueling and emotionally draining stretch for Jose Quintana, who wanted so bad to be in the playoffs but couldn’t have imagined the highs and lows quite like this.

On top of the Cubs playing their third game in four days in three different time zones – and a week where he already matched up against Max Scherzer and worked out of the bullpen Thursday night to help eliminate the Washington Nationals – Quintana felt the anxiety and handled a family emergency.

The victory flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to the West Coast got diverted to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Friday morning when Quintana’s wife, Michel, experienced a panic attack.

The Cubs waited until Saturday to make what sounded like an obvious announcement: Quintana would be their Game 1 starter against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.

“She was just nervous,” Quintana said after a 5-2 loss at Dodger Stadium where he was just as good as Clayton Kershaw. “That’s the first time it happened like that on a plane. I just tried to relax her, and the doctor said: ‘We have time. We can stop and she can go to the hospital.’”  

At that point, the Cubs needed a new flight crew, but from the moment he arrived in a midseason trade with the White Sox, teammates and staffers have been impressed by Quintana’s attitude and professionalism.  

“We spent five hours on the tarmac,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Nobody complained. It was an empathic moment. Everybody understood what's going on. As a human being, you're concerned for other human beings.

“Q got off the plane. He spent some time, (talking to) our team doctor, everything seems to be well. Q got his rest. We contacted him. He felt good about pitching.

“It was a human moment. We’re playing a game. When you’re dealing with human beings, people take priority. I was really pleased with the way our group handled the situation. And I really respect Q's word. He said he's ready to rock 'n' roll, so we believe him.”

Quintana strung together four scoreless innings but seemed to wear down in the fifth against a Los Angeles lineup that is still tough even without All-Star shortstop Corey Seager. Quintana walked Logan Forsythe and Austin Barnes in back-to-back at-bats, setting up two runs for the Dodgers and a bullpen battle that the Cubs would not win.

“I can’t imagine how that went for him,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “I’m glad everyone’s OK there. For him to come out and do what he did there – keeping them to two runs – it was pretty big. Obviously, it just didn’t work out for us today.”

The Cubs are learning what Quintana is all about, keeping his team viable while Scherzer flirts with a no-hitter, getting two outs as a reliever in an elimination game and canceling out Kershaw after five innings.

“My mind is strong,” Quintana said. “You want to go out there for your team. You got to push through it.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”