Jed Hoyer

After saving the season, will Jose Quintana be the game-changer for Cubs in NLCS?

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USA TODAY

After saving the season, will Jose Quintana be the game-changer for Cubs in NLCS?

WASHINGTON – Jose Quintana stood a few steps over from the exact spot where ex-catcher Miguel Montero ended his Cubs career, going viral with a rant that blamed Jake Arrieta and the coaching staff for letting Washington leadoff guy Trea Turner run wild.

This time, plastic sheets covered all the lockers inside the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park, the drunken dancing and cigar smoke early Friday morning such a drastic change from how quiet the low-energy Cubs felt in late June.    

Quintana already helped save a team that appeared to be close to imploding when Theo Epstein’s front office made that blockbuster trade with the White Sox during the All-Star break.

Quintana delivered again in the National League Division Series, allowing only one unearned run in a Game 3 where Max Scherzer would take a no-hitter into the seventh inning and the Cubs would somehow scrape together a 2-1 win.  

Quintana got two outs in the all-hands-on-deck Game 5, throwing 12 pitches before All-Star closer Wade Davis took over in the seventh inning and understood no one else would be warming up behind him in the bullpen.  

Quintana is too humble and respectful to demand that the Cubs give him the ball in Game 1 opposite Clayton Kershaw on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, but the lefty knows how he feels about the NL Championship Series.

“I’m ready to go, man,” Quintana said after a heart-pounding 9-8 win that began Thursday night and ended Friday morning in Washington. “Why not? Let’s go. Keep going.”

The Cubs started rolling when Quintana joined a 43-45 team on July 14 in Baltimore, watching him dominate the Orioles two days later (seven scoreless innings, 12 strikeouts, zero walks) and closing a 5.5-game deficit on the Brewers within the week. The Cubs would spend every day in first place in August and September while Quintana (7-3, 3.74 ERA in 14 starts) gave the team a sense of consistency and enjoyed his first real exposure to a pennant race.  

“Timing is everything,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “Like I’m going to continue to say throughout my time here in Chicago, our ownership and front office, they mean what they say. We want to win every year. We want an opportunity to win a World Series every year. 

“Like I said when that trade happened, that’s what they showed. They followed through with their actions, and we followed suit.

“The biggest thing I’m proud of with this group of people here that joined us is we all rise to every challenge and look it right in the eye and have fun with it. You don’t know how it’s going to work out. You don’t know the outcome. But we all rise to the challenge and take it on.”    

The Dodgers will not be an easy team to beat four times in a seven-game series, especially with manager Joe Maddon running out of guys he trusts in the bullpen and the rotation in suboptimal condition after a draining battle against the Nationals.

Maddon said John Lackey is also in the conversation for Game 1 starter. But a moment like this is exactly why the Cubs gave up top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease for a 28-year-old pitcher who is under club control through the 2020 season for a little more than $30 million.

“The timing was certainly (unique),” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We were struggling. It was negative. But in some ways – Theo and I talked about this at the time – this is a deal that if it had come up in May or July or in December (was) exactly what we’ve been trying to find in a young, talented, controllable starter.

“There was a level of frustration, which is natural. We look out on the field and you see all this talent and we’re two games under .500 and really been inconsistent the whole time.

“This guy exactly fit what we were looking to acquire. This timing was interesting. But at the same time, I don’t think the timing would have mattered.”

For someone who had never played in the postseason before, Quintana just got a crash course in how exhilarating, frustrating and unpredictable it can be.

“It’s amazing,” Quintana said. “Sometimes it’s crazy how these guys play that baseball – behind 4-1 in the second inning and we come back in the game right away. It’s amazing, that energy we need for the playoffs. I’m really happy to be a part of this team.”

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

If you worked for a billionaire family, would you recommend signing Jon Lester or Max Scherzer for the future? If your season depended on it, would you rather have Lester or Scherzer on the mound?

The Cubs and Washington Nationals already answered those questions after the 2014 season, committing $365 million combined to two different aces at two different points in their construction projects, making the free-agent decisions that helped shape this National League Division Series.

Both franchises are pleased with the returns on the investments – and aware of the checkered history for pitchers with nine-figure contracts. But only Lester has looked out from a Grant Park stage at the endless sea of people and announced into the microphone: “How about this s---?”

The Nationals are still waiting for their first ever playoff series win – much less a championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in a city where the Senators last won the World Series in 1924.  

All those dynamics make Scherzer’s hamstring “tweak” – in the right leg where he pushes off and generates so much power – such an X-factor on Monday in a Game 3 that will leave one team nine innings away from elimination.    

“I feel like I’m good to go,” Scherzer said. “Hey, we’re in the playoffs. Every game is a must-win. This is going to be a crazy atmosphere here at Wrigley. I can’t wait to toe the rubber.”

Coming off a fifth straight fifth-place finish, Lester vs. Scherzer wasn’t much of an internal debate in the team’s old Clark Street headquarters.

Lester had formed solid relationships with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the Cubs executives knew which buttons to push during the recruiting pitch after their years together with the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs already had an in-depth understanding of Lester’s medical history and clubhouse reputation and an appreciation for a smooth left-handed delivery they believed would help him age gracefully.

[MORE: With time running out at Wrigley, Jake Arrieta chases another World Series ring

The Red Sox insulting Lester with a lowball offer in spring training and shipping him to the Oakland A’s at the trade deadline opened his eyes to the world beyond Fenway Park and exempted the Cubs from having to pay a draft pick as compensation on top of the six-year, $155 million contract.

“For us, such a big part of that process was our comfort with Jon as a person, as a competitor, as a teammate,” Hoyer said. “That was sort of our first big commitment in free agency. Without knowing Jon so well, it may have been a different calculus.

“But given that relationship, it just made the most sense to go after the guy we respected and knew as well as you’re going to know any free agent.”

Scherzer is a baseball unicorn, the outlier stretching beyond the preconceived notions about his violent delivery and when he might break down, making at least 30 starts in nine straight seasons and working toward a third Cy Young Award.

The Nationals knew all about Scherzer’s bulldog mentality, because general manager Mike Rizzo had overseen scouting when the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Super-agent Scott Boras – who represents Scherzer and several other high-profile Nationals – also has an unusually close relationship with principal owner Ted Lerner.     

Scherzer believes he can will himself through 100 pitches and overpower a Cubs lineup that outside of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo is 5-for-44 with one RBI and 15 strikeouts through two playoff games against Washington.

“The thing I admire the most about Scherzer is he’s constantly evolving, improving pitches, developing pitches,” Hoyer said. “The best guys in any sport continue to get better and better each season.

“Jordan evolved his game and ended up with the fadeaway. In every sport, you think of different examples of a guy who’s really willing to make changes. And I think Scherzer is that guy.

“Every time he starts, you watch him compete and you feel like this is a guy who lays it all out there every single time.”

Scherzer is also 33 years old and guaranteed four more seasons on a $210 million megadeal that contains a significant amount of deferred money. It may not be now or never for the Nationals, but the window won’t stay open forever, and you never know if you will ever have a better opportunity.  

“In this day and age, there’s not much that guys don’t hear about,” Lester said, “with social media and MLB Network and ESPN and all this other stuff. Yeah, I’m sure it was in our heads. We all knew about it. It’s hard to run away from it.

“The guys that signed here – that was the reason why we signed here – to break that curse and win a World Series for the city of Chicago.

“On their side, I don’t know if it’s in their head. I know for us, every day, you heard about a goat or you heard about Bartman or you heard about a black cat or 1908 or whatever.”

The questions won’t stop until the Nationals deliver in October – and it’s hard to see that happening if a “tweak” compromises everything that turns Scherzer into Mad Max.  

“You’ve got to eliminate that stuff and go out and play the game,” Lester said. “The game does not change. In the postseason, yeah, it probably speeds up. (But) once you step on that rubber, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches. You still have to execute a pitch. You still have to have good at-bats and catch the ball.

“That’s kind of how I’ve always looked at it. And you try to eliminate the goats and all that other stuff.”

Men vs. Boys: How Nationals showed Cubs the way to build a heavyweight contender

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AP

Men vs. Boys: How Nationals showed Cubs the way to build a heavyweight contender

WASHINGTON – What are the odds the Cubs would win the World Series and Donald Trump would become president before the Washington Nationals won a playoff series?

We can only imagine the reaction if Dale Sveum heard that apocalyptic postgame question on Sept. 6, 2012, when the Cubs manager summed up a four-game sweep at Nationals Park like this: “That’s just men playing against boys right now.”

This was nearing the end of Year 1 for the Theo Epstein administration, when the light at the end of the tunnel felt more like a bridge to nowhere.

Now the Cubs are the defending World Series champs. Epstein’s baseball operations group continues a tradition of playing pickup basketball before each playoff series, posing for pictures on Thursday with Patrick Ewing on the Georgetown campus. And Washington is the team that has to prove it can handle the pressure in the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night at Nationals Park.

That alternative reality would have sounded absolutely bonkers while watching the Cubs and Nationals that September.

“I showed (Kyle) Schwarber like three days ago,” said catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, his face lighting up with recognition. “We gave up 15 homers in four games. We watched every homer the other day. I said: ‘This is where we were.’”

Sveum got fired, in part, for his brutal honesty after another fifth-place finish in 2013. But he knew all about talent and preparation after: playing with Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor; being on the 1998 New York Yankees team that won 114 games and the first of three straight World Series titles; and helping coach up the iconic “Band of Idiots” on the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

Set aside Jeff Samardzija’s 2-1 loss on Labor Day — another sign the Notre Dame football star could become a 200-inning pitcher and anchor a flip deal for future All-Star shortstop Addison Russell — and the Cubs got outscored 29-8 in three games started by Chris Rusin, Chris Volstad and Justin Germano.

“I’ve never been part of three consecutive games that you were just beyond overmatched,” said Borzello, a Sveum hire who earned four World Series rings as a Yankee staffer. “These homers were not fence-scrapers. It was like: ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ It wouldn’t stop. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

General manager Jed Hoyer fired off a long internal memo after that series, detailing how the Nationals were built and how they timed their big moves. In the middle of the 2009 season, as an up-and-coming Red Sox employee, Hoyer had multiple interviews with Nationals ownership for the GM job that went to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo as an internal promotion.

“It was like smacking us in the face,” Hoyer said. “This is what we wanted to become when we were good. We were looking at an adult version, or basically a late-teenage-years version of what we were trying to be.

“Getting destroyed by those guys, I thought, was actually like a great thing for our mentality. Like: ‘Oh, OK, this is how far we are away.’

“But also in 2009, when I was interviewing there, they were dead last, so it doesn’t have to take forever.”

Indeed, the Nationals turned 102- and 103-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 into No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg (Game 1 starter) and Bryce Harper (2015 NL MVP). Though it hasn’t yet translated into October glory, the Nationals have won between 95 and 98 games and division titles in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Out of that 101-loss season in 2012, the Cubs found their own future NL Rookie of the Year/MVP from Las Vegas: Kris Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, part of a run on hitters that includes Schwarber, the 2014 first-round selection who’s 3-for-3 in playoff appearances and already an October legend.

“It’s crazy,” Schwarber said. “I was lucky enough to come here when we made the playoffs. That’s all I know – winning right now.

“I’m sure there’s other guys in this room that have been part of losing teams, and they don’t ever want to have that feeling again. I know for a fact I don’t ever want to have that feeling of being on a losing team.

“It’s the competitive nature of this game. You want to make it to the playoffs. You want to win the World Series. I’m lucky. I’m fortunate to be a part of this. We just want to keep it going.”

In the same way that the Nationals gave outfielder Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million contract after a 93-loss season in 2010 — to change their culture and add championship experience — the Cubs signed big-game pitcher Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million megadeal after a last-place finish in 2014.

Now Werth is appreciating his final days in a Washington uniform, super-agent Scott Boras will market Harper as a free agent after next season, the Nationals don’t know how long Strasburg and Max Scherzer can reasonably stay healthy and the Cubs feel like they are just getting started.

“This team has an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done for a while,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “There’s been some teams that have dominated those few years in a row. This team, because of all the young players, and because of the resources the club has going forward, has the opportunity to do that for years to come.

“You’re entering the smack-dab middle of a time where you got a lot of young, exciting Cubs players that are going to make their mark for years and years to come. So this is the time to be a Cub fan. If you want to jump on the bandwagon, do it now.”

But to fully appreciate the scope of this teardown, rebuild and potential dynasty, you have to understand “Men vs. Boys.”

“Don’t forget this series, because this is the one that’s going to keep you pushing,” Borzello remembered thinking at the time. “You never want to experience that again.

“It’s more an appreciation of where we are. But to appreciate where we are, you can’t forget where you’ve been. And that is the series that I’ll never forget. That’s where we were.”