Cubs

How Jose Quintana overcame early nerves and exceeded expectations in Game 3

How Jose Quintana overcame early nerves and exceeded expectations in Game 3

He expected to be excitable and was early in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Monday afternoon. But Cubs pitcher Jose Quintana also managed to surprise himself in the process.

Even though a raucous Wrigley Field crowd provided him with more emotions than he’d ever experienced, Quintana’s pregame preparation and an abundance of first-pitch strikes helped calm him down.

The combination was more than enough to get Quintana going. Once he did, the 2016 All-Star pitcher found another gear and managed to exceed the perhaps unfair hype created by the midseason blockbuster trade that brought him to the Cubs from the White Sox in mid-July. Quintana allowed an unearned run and two hits in 5 2/3 innings and the Cubs rallied for a critical 2-1 victory over the Washington Nationals to take a 2-1 series lead.

“I was surprised at me being in control because sometimes we try to do too much,” Quintana said. “That happens. That’s part of baseball. But I enjoyed that time and we did a good pregame and all my stuff was good.”

Quintana has experienced a number of big moments throughout his career from the All-Star Game to the World Baseball Classic to last month’s pennant race.

But the left-hander had never faced the kind of test that only October baseball provides. Even he wondered before Sunday’s workout if he’d be amped up when he stepped on the mound.

As expected, he was.

Quintana said the reception from the Wrigley crowd was different than anything he’d experienced and was nervous. But aside from one pitch, manager Joe Maddon didn’t see much different in Quintana’s demeanor.

“He overboogied on the third pitch, that elevated fastball to (Trea) Turner,” Maddon said. “Otherwise he really controlled his emotions.”

Just as they planned, Quintana was aggressive against a powerful Nationals lineup and littered the zone with strikes. He threw nine strikes in 13 first-inning pitches, including all three first pitches, and induced three weak grounders. In all, Quintana threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 22 hitters.

[MORE: 5 biggest keys to Cubs' thrilling Game 3 win]

And that was all he needed to keep pace with Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

“When he’s throwing strikes, it’s tough to get on him,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “Any time you hit those spots and he’s throwing strikes and mixing it up as well as he was, getting some swings and misses, you know he’s on.”

Not only did Quintana hit his spots, he had great stuff with 14 swings and misses among his 96 pitches, including six with his curveball. That led to seven strikeouts and only walk.

The combination of stuff, hitting spots and thorough trust of the gameplan provided Quintana with enough to navigate the Washington lineup with little trouble.

“He has a lot of conviction in what he’s doing,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. “You can see it in his eyes. He prepared himself before the game, a few days before the game. That’s a good thing for us.”

“He was amazing. We did everything he wanted. He was cool, had a good pace. He slowed it down a lot. That was a huge key for us.”

Contreras said Quintana was in such a rhythm that he didn’t want to bother him on the bench because Quintana was so dialed into the game. About the only thing that did bother Quintana was a pair of third-inning errors that jeopardized the scoreless contest. With two outs, a Zobrist error extended a rally, putting runners on the corners. Quintana missed on the next two pitches to Anthony Rendon, but got him to fly out to deep right-center.

Quintana only got stronger in the later innings, striking out the side in the fifth. He threw a curve in the dirt to get Harper swinging to start the sixth. Rendon grounded out weakly and Quintana would have gotten through six if Kyle Schwarber didn’t drop Daniel Murphy’s lazy fly to left, one of four Cubs errors.

Though Quintana didn’t get a chance to strand Murphy on third, he was more than pleased with how he handled the moment.

“I think in the past sometimes I’ve been a little quick in the stretch,” Quintana said. “I just tried to be relaxed and just hit my spots. That’s all I tried to do and that worked good.”

“Honestly, I was a bit nervous in the first inning. I was (off) a couple pitches. After that, I tried to be focused.”

“It was amazing.”

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.