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.”

Why the Cubs are on the brink


Why the Cubs are on the brink

With wide scale panic now fully embracing the Cubs massive fan base as their once firm grip on the NL Central division race has dwindled to a mere 0.5 game we need to look at why this may be happening.

Is their roster not as talented as we all thought? No, that would be an inaccurate assessment because the roster put together by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer is deep and talented and boasts star power that should carry the club through any rough patch.

Have they been overly affected by injuries? Not enough that it should knock them from their perch atop the division. Yes, they lost pitcher Yu Darvish and closer Brandon Morrow which would sap any pitching staff when robbed of two of its best arms. However, Darvish has been sidelined since May with an arm injury that eventually required surgery. And the Cubs starting rotation over the past 6 weeks has been among the best in baseball.

The bullpen has certainly been affected by the loss of Morrow as well as his replacement in the closer's role, Pedro Strop but that is not why this team is watching their lead melt down in the season's final days. There are enough quality arms in the Cubs bullpen to get the job done to get to the postseason.

The reason this team is struggling is because their offense has been wildly inconsistent all season long and there doesn't seem to be a sure fire remedy to cure them. The change in hitting coaches from John Mallee to Chili Davis will get a lot of scrutiny from fans and media but these are professional hitters with several years of experience who should know how to fix their swing themselves. Chili Davis isn't walking up and taking the at bats for the players. Can his philosophy be discussed in the off season? Certainly. But, when players such as Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber perform far below expectations it hamstrings an offense that should be light years better than it has shown. 

Contreras was in the MVP discussions before the season started but his output this season has be incredibly mediocre. Where has his power gone? Contreras is hitting .205 since the All Star break with an abysmal .298 on base percentage and he is hitting just .213 this season with runners in scoring position. And Schwarber is not much better. The player that stole the show in the 2016 World Series is hitting .224 since the All Star break and he is hitting just .200 with men in scoring position for the season.

However, at this critical juncture the only way the Cubs are going to pull this team up out of their nose dive is for someone to step up and put this team on their back and do it themselves. Is that person accomplished slugger Anthony Rizzo? How about MVP candidate Javier Baez? Veteran hitter Daniel Murphy? He is hitting .250 over the last 30 days but his on base percentage is a woeful .298. 

It is probably a safe bet to say that it won't be 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant who has been beset by injuries most of the season and has missed more than 70 games with a combination of a shoulder injury (that could require some type of cleanup procedure in the offseason), the effects of getting hit in the head with a fastball early in the season and a wrist injury suffered last night when he was hit by a pitch.

So, with five games left to play the questions are few and the answers are unknown. Who will step up and play the role of savior for the struggling Cubs offense? Will the starting pitching answer the bell and pitch the Cubs to a division title? And does the talent filled roster have enough left in the tank to hold off the Milwaukee Brewers?

When the Cubs were down 3-1 in the 2016 World Series I knew deep down that team was coming back to battle and that they had a great shot to win the World Series. They did just that with dominant starting pitching and some clutch offense.

However, I'm not sure I have that same feeling right now with this 2018 team. I don't see someone locked in offensively and ready to have one of those nights that carries a team to a much needed victory. So, is someone ready to step up and provide a team and a fan base the shot in the arm they so desperately need? Jose Quintana gets the ball on Wednesday. He has a chance to dominate and lead his team. This is why he was acquired at a very high price. For moments like these. Can he pitch like a Ferrari? His team is counting on it as a fan base panics.

'We gotta bring it' — Cubs looking for motivation with five games left


'We gotta bring it' — Cubs looking for motivation with five games left

Thanks to a 6-0 loss to the Pirates Tuesday night, the Cubs are in an uncomfortable position in the NL Central division with just a half-game lead and five left to play, yet the clubhouse remains confident.

In fact, Mike Montgomery — who surrendered five runs on seven hits in four innings Tuesday — said after the game that this loss might serve a positive purpose.

"We got a resilient bunch of guys. We know where we’re at, and it’s kind of a little bit of motivation," Montgomery said. "We gotta bring it these last five games. Our guys know that, we’re not going to get discouraged. We’re going to regroup and get ready for tomorrow."

The Cubs have little choice but to bring it, especially with the red-hot Brewers scoring more runs on Tuesday night (12) than the Cubs have in their last three games combined. The Cubs did score 8 and then 6 runs on Saturday and Sunday on the South Side, but they turned around and put up only a single run Monday night before being blanked Tuesday. 

Joe Maddon said after the shutout loss that the up-and-down nature of his offense is a frustration.

"We're not happy. And again it’s really coming down to the one component of the game we just haven’t been good at recently, and that’s offense," Maddon said. "And then you have to be careful because guys start pressing even more."

In the loss, the Cubs got four hits off of Pirates starter Chris Archer, but he struck out nine and squashed any remote scoring opportunity almost as quickly as it arose. Whether or not the lineup is pressing, they struggled to put together good at bats against Archer.

"This has been going on for a bit — our offense has been very inconsistent. I mean, Archy was good, but we just got to fight through that, especially this time of the year," Maddon said.

Leadoff man Daniel Murphy started the game with a promising single for the Cubs, but the rest of the lineup couldn't turn that into a go-ahead run. The Pirates followed up with a three-run homer in the second inning, setting the Cubs up to chase for the rest of the night. 

"Our concept of scoring first is going to be pretty important," Maddon said of the next five games. "We have to grab the lead and hold on to it."

But, like Montgomery, Murphy saw some positive takeaway from Tuesday's loss.

"I think that what this club has done a really good job of is kinda washing off a poor performance, which is unfortunately what we've had the last two nights," Murphy said. "We'll go home, we'll sleep up, see our families, and see if we can come in here tomorrow and play a little bit better."

The pressure of a very close division race that is coming down to the final days is real, and Montgomery said that it creates the win-or-go-home playoff atmosphere in these last games. That's a challenge he and his teammates are up for. 

"We’ve grinded out this whole year. We have a lot of good players, a lot of guys who have been through a lot of different things," Montgomery said.

He knows a bit about that, having pitched the final out of the 2016 World Series. The core of the group that won that championship is largely still intact, but the success of the postseason two years ago feels further away in history when the picture to win the division is looking increasingly bleak. 

Unless the Brewers slow down, the Cubs are in a position where they have to nearly win out to keep from losing their hold on the NL Central. That said, they are a virtual lock for a postseason spot no matter what, thanks to the wild card. 

Not really a desirable outcome for a 90+ win team, but a loss for the Cardinals and a win for the Rockies on Tuesday put the Cubs' magic number to at least get in to the postseason down to one.

But that's not the outcome the team is expecting, and certainly not the one they're shooting for. Montgomery said that losing both the pitching and the hitting battle to the Pirates Tuesday is a little fuel for the Cubs.

"Take it like every game matters from this point on," Montgomery said of the team's mindset for the next five days. "Our guys are equipped for that, and mentally this gives us a chance to really come together as a group and go out there and perform our best baseball."