Cubs

As they work to get healthy, Cubs unsure if Drew Smyly will be an option down the stretch

As they work to get healthy, Cubs unsure if Drew Smyly will be an option down the stretch

While the focus surrounding the Cubs' disabled list has centered on the trio of stars (Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow), Drew Smyly continues to fly in under the radar.

You can't blame Cubs fans for forgetting about him given he's never thrown a pitch for the team after signing a two-year, $10 million deal over the winter.

As Smyly continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery, his status for 2018 is becoming more and more of a question mark. What once appeared a strong possibility for a late-season return has now delved into one big #ShrugEmoji.

Last month, Smyly was throwing simulated games against Cubs hitters and hoped to go on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues by Aug. 1. It's now Aug. 16 and he has yet to begin that rehab stint.

Joe Maddon said Wednesday things are still status quo on the 29-year-old left-handed pitcher. The issue with Smyly isn't pain in that surgically-repaired elbow, he explained, but more on his body recovering at a slower rate than he would like.

"It's hard to put into words — I'm healthy, I'm throwing, it's just like the recovery standpoint, the bounce-back from the next day/the next couple days is not where I really want it to be," Smyly said. "So that's the hardest part — that's like the final hurdle. Just being able to pitch and then being like, 'OK, I'm good to pitch in a couple days as a reliever or five [days as a starter].' 

"It's just not really responding the way I want it to. It's completely normal. It's just part of the of the rehab process — shortening the window. When I'm on the mound and well-rested, I feel great and I walk off it excited where I'm at and ready for the next step. I kinda wake up the next day and the soreness just lingers."

Recovery from Tommy John is never linear; little things are different for each guy and each process.

That's why the Cubs backloaded Smyly's contract. They never went into 2018 planning on penciling him into the rotation or bullpen in September.

But up until a couple weeks ago, it looked very possible that Smyly could be a wild card for the Cubs pitching staff.

"I don't know if he's gonna be well enough to do that," Maddon said. "I know Drew really well and I know how good he is. It's enticing. You'd love to see it happen, but let's just get him well first."

Maddon managed Smyly with the Tampa Bay Rays in the second half of the 2014 and current Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey worked with the southpaw for the 2015-16 seasons, as well.

Smyly has extensive experience as both a reliever (71 appearances) and starter (85 starts) over his five-year MLB career. He boasts a 3.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 8.7 K/9, but hasn't thrown a pitch in a meaningful game since Sept. 26, 2016 (almost six weeks before the Cubs won the World Series).

"I'm so eager to get out there," Smyly said. "This is the hardest part for me, because you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I'm on the mound, I feel great and I'm healthy and it's an exciting feeling.

"And then you kinda wake up the next day and you're like, 'Um, I'm still sore from it.' And so it's just been maintaining that hope and still not rushing it and taking it slow. When I signed with the Cubs, the goal was always 2019, but obviously I want to play. They know I want to play, just trying to push through."

Smyly feels like he's close and has helped work through his frustrations by talking with fellow teammates and friends — like Darvish and Tyler Chatwood — who have gone through the Tommy John process.

Once his body starts responding and recovering the way he would like the final hurdle for Smyly would be to pitch with maximum effort in a game environment. Sim games and bullpens are great, but there's no way to actually simulate the adrenaline and speed of an actual game. For now, he's still working with the training staff in Chicago.

The postseason is still more than six weeks away and the Cubs have so many other questions to answer on their roster outside of Smyly. 

But for a team that could use some more quality left-handed depth in the bullpen, it's hard to look at Smyly inches away from a return and not wonder — "what if?"

"I'm just champing at the bit to get out there," he said. "But it's excitement, too, because we go out there and we expect to win every day and that's a fun feeling. In the dugout, the energy in the ballpark, the atmosphere here, the fans every day — I get goosebumps just sitting in the dugout watching the team play.

"I'm anxious for that feeling myself to be on the mound. It'll come in good time. I'm very hopeful that it'll be this year, still, but if it's not, then it'll be next year. ... Counting down the days until I'm out there, man."

Javy Baez can see the future

Javy Baez can see the future

Javy Baez doesn't have the words to describe Javy Baez.

But then again, that's not what he does.

Analytical breakdowns aren't his game — incredible, heart-stopping physical feats on the baseball diamond are.

On a night at Wrigley Field that felt like one of the October battles of the past between the Cubs and Dodgers, Baez once again wowed and awed.

It wasn't just that ridiculous juke move at first base, though that will undoubtedly go down as one of the top MLB highlights of the year — if not THE top highlight. 

During Tuesday night's 7-2 Cubs win, Baez turned five different ground balls into outs...from the outfield grass. One such play nabbed Cody Bellinger by a split second at first base to end a bases-loaded threat in the eighth inning. 

And there was his seventh homer of the season — his first at home, surprisingly — to give the Cubs some more breathing room as he continues to hit the ball with authority the other way. He now has 15 hits in his last 33 at-bats and 9 of those knocks have gone for extra bases (5 doubles, 3 homers and a triple). 

But back to that play at first base — how did he do it?

After pausing for a few seconds, Baez shrugged and said, "I don't know," before trying to find the words to explain what was going through his head in those few seconds as he was hurtling down the basepath:

"I just saw him really close to the line," Baez said. "Usually on that play, you go around [the base] like it's a base hit. I think if I would've kept going, he was going to run me over because he's a big dude. 

"I saw a play — Billy Hamilton did it like 3 or 4 years ago. I saw it and that was the first thing that came to my mind — to stop or see a reaction and he couldn't stop. I know I didn't leave the line. It was everything good."

It's the last part that's most amazing. 

Here's the play Baez was referencing, from July 11, 2014:

So as he's running down to first base, he has the wherewithal to dip into his encyclopedic cache, pluck out the perfect play from his memory and execute it in glorious fashion...all in a matter of maybe a second-and-a-half.

"I think we all feel his energy all around the place — not only on the field, but in the clubhouse," catcher Willson Contreras said. "We call him The Mago for a reason. I love this guy. To me, he has the best instincts in the game. What he did today was just awesome. That's one of the best base hits ever."

Joe Maddon said he and the Cubs coaches were comparing Baez to legendary Bears running back Gale Sayers in the dugout for that juke move.

"That's him playing on a playground in Puerto Rico somewhere," Maddon said. "That's what I love about him. There's no fear in his game. His game is a game and he sees things in advance and he's fearless. He could strike out three or four times in a row and that is not going to impact his fifth at-bat."

Just about every week throughout the season, Baez shows the baseball world something it's never seen before. 

From his lightning quick tags to his swim move slides to hitting bombs left-handed during batting practice to his rocket arm that has been clocked as high as 98 mph on the infield — even he has to surprise himself every now and then, right? Especially like this play Tuesday night?

"Nah, not really," he said, smirking. "I think if it's in your mind, it's possible. I see a lot of things that people can do and they don't realize it. I realize everything I can do and everything I can't do."

If you ever want to know what makes Baez "El Mago," read that last sentence again:

"I realize everything I can do and everything I can't do."

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Jose Quintana continued his strong run in a dominant 7-inning performance against the Dodgers

Jose Quintana continued his strong run in a dominant 7-inning performance against the Dodgers

During the 4th inning of the Cubs’ 7-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night, LA right fielder Cody Bellinger took a 92 mile per hour fastball from Jose Quintana and sent it right back his way at 96: 

After a quick (maybe unintentional?) grab, Quintana calmly tossed the ball in his glove a few times before walking off the mound without even a grimace.

It was just that kind of night for Quintana, who pitched 7 strong innings while allowing only two runs on four hits and striking out seven. He’s now gone seven innings in three straight starts, all Cubs wins - two of which were against teams that currently sit in 1st place.

“We needed that kind of performance tonight,” Manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “They have a very difficult lineup to navigate and he was once again on top of his game. Great focus - he kept coming back with good pitches. Really the curveball was very pertinent tonight and then he had some good changeups to go with the fastball. He’s pitching.”

Quintana flashed an impressive amount of control while working through one of baseball’s toughest lineups. After walking six batters through his first two starts, Quintana has now only walked three since. 71 of his 114 pitches -- the most thrown by any Cubs pitcher this season, per team notes -- went for strikes. 

“I feel great,” he said after the game. “I know I’ve been throwing the ball really well the last couple of starts. All my stuff’s worked really good.”

“This year he’s been really good,” Willson Contreras added. “He’s using all his pitches which he didn’t do last year very often. I think he has his mind in the right place right now, and we’re in a good place.”

Quintana’s offspeed repertoire was firmly on display all night. Per Statcast, after throwing two changeups to Dodgers leadoff hitter Enrique Hernandez, he didn’t show the pitch again until the 4th. On the night, he threw the change up 12 times; the Dodgers failed to put a single one in play. 

“We’ve been in these types of situations and conversations since Spring Training,” Contreras added. “I saw him working out his change up in [there], which is good. He was a little harder than 84, but today I think was one of the best games he threw with the change up.”

Through 28 innings pitched this season, the lefty now sports a sub-3 FIP (2.89) and is striking out over 11 batters per nine innings. Some pitchers that have a higher FIP include David Price, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. 

“He’s absolutely pitching right now,” Maddon added. “Where in the past I thought he would just pretty much rely on his fastball. He’s becoming a pitch maker.”