Cubs

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

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USA TODAY

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are going to destroy Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. The rivalry has fundamentally shifted to the point where the St. Louis Cardinals are hanging around the National League’s wild-card race in a transition year and it would have been a massive failure if the defending World Series champs didn’t win this division. But there will be some symbolism to popping champagne bottles and spraying beer all over that room.

“We intend to clinch there,” Ben Zobrist said after Jose Quintana’s complete-game masterpiece in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “And I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”

Quintana has only been a Cub since the Brewers failed to close a deal with the White Sox and team president Theo Epstein swooped in to make a signature trade during the All-Star break. Quintana hasn’t yet pitched in the playoffs, but this is close enough, the Cubs winning back-to-back 10-inning games against the Brewers and shaking off a walk-off loss before the lefty faced off against Chase Anderson in front of a sellout crowd of 42,212.

Quintana gave the Cubs more data points to consider as they prepare for a probable first-round series against the Washington Nationals. The magic number to eliminate both the Brewers and Cardinals is two, with Milwaukee off on Monday and the Cubs playing a rivalry game in St. Louis that night, meaning the party goggles won’t come out until Tuesday at the earliest.

“It’s the playoffs already for this team,” said Zobrist, who again looked like a World Series MVP in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game when he launched Anderson’s first-pitch fastball into the second deck in right field for a two-run, breathing-room homer. “We’re already thinking that way.

“We’re in postseason mode right now. And we intend to continue that for the next month.”

While there are valid concerns about Jon Lester’s nosedive in performance since coming off the disabled list and the state of Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring, the focus should also be on how Quintana (7-3, 3.50 ERA in 13 starts as a Cub) could be an October game-changer for this rotation.

“Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s showing you that right now. Games like that, to me, could be kind of career-altering for a pitcher.

“When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior. It definitely fluffs it up a little bit.”

“It’s exciting to be here,” said Quintana, who allowed only three singles, piled up 10 strikeouts against one walk and hit 93 mph on his 116th and final pitch in the ninth inning. “I just try to help my team and it’s really special when you get that opportunity. It’s about winning and I have a huge opportunity here.”

In all phases of the game – dominant starting pitching, an offense that created different ways to score runs, multiple bullpen contributors and an airtight defense that committed zero errors in 39 innings – Maddon saw what he was looking for: “We reacted in a playoff manner for these four games. Our mental intensity could not be beat.”

That drifting, in-and-out focus had been part of the background when the Cubs shocked the baseball world with the Quintana trade in the middle of July. Concentration won’t be an issue at Busch Stadium. And this hangover will be real.

“It will be nice to do it there, I’ll just say that,” said Zobrist, who understands the Cubs-Cardinals dynamic as someone who grew up in downstate Illinois. “But we got to win the games.

“As John Lackey said it before (this) series: ‘This is not a small series, boys.’ We knew it was a big one here in Milwaukee. And it will be another big one in St. Louis.”

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

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USA TODAY

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

The NL Central keeps getting better this offseason.

According to multiple reports, the Reds have traded for pitcher Sonny Gray from the Yankees.

The Reds have been active this offseason and adding a former all-star to their rotation would be another big step towards turning the Reds into contenders in what is shaping up to be a very tough NL Central in 2019. They already added Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers.

Gray is 29 and has a career ERA of 3.66, but isn't coming off a good year. With the Yankees he had a 4.90 ERA, the second-highest of his career, and didn't pitch in the postseason. The last time Gray had a bad year, he bounced back. Gray had a 5.69 ERA in 2016, the year after his breakout all-star campaign in 2015, but was solid in 2017 with the A's and Yankees.

Coming off a 95-loss season, the Reds had a long way to go, but look to be improved on paper with those additions.

Elsewhere in the division, the Cardinals already added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller and the defending division champion Brewers added marquee free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Meanwhile, it has been mostly crickets for the Cubs this offseason. Owner Tom Ricketts recently defended the team's financial situation, which has led to the team appearing to be less aggressive this winter.

It looks like the Cubs will face increased competition in the division this season. Will that force the team's hand to be more aggressive before spring training?

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Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader."