By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) “We’re back.”
It could only have been more resounding had Cubs catcher Willson Contreras faxed it to the media following his team’s sweep of the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday. In a roller coaster year that has found the Cubs giving fans glimpses of the 2016 championship caliber amid collective dips in hitting, pitching and emotion, the team comes out of the weekend that came out of the All-Star break riding a high.
Small sample size of feasting on Orioles pitching, sure. But nine, 10 and eight runs scored in each game of a series against any MLB team is nothing to sneeze at. More importantly, it boosts the mentality of a lineup that seemed really unsure of itself entering July. As we enter the dog days of summer, the hot bats that terrified the rest of baseball seem to be, well, back. At least as declared by the catcher with eight hits over the weekend who has also begun to establish himself as a young leader on this squad.
“It’s not just me, but I think everyone needed (the break), the rest was needed,” Contreras said. “Everybody looks focused, everybody looks like they have a plan and an approach. We’re not wasting time, we’re attacking pitches.”
Know what else lifts a collective mentality, too? Starting pitching removing the burden from the offense. The Cubs starters currently have a three-game streak of not allowing a run in the first inning, which seems pretty pathetic to celebrate, because it is.
Coincidentally, this all comes after the acquisition of left-hander Jose Quintana from the White Sox last Thursday. And as all of the Cubs players except closer Wade Davis were sitting at home for the All-Star Game and trying to recharge, it can’t be understated the psychological boost a front office gives its team by showing they’re still in it to win it with a trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter. It can really bring a lost team … back.
While some in this city chose to focus on the long-term component of the Quintana contract — certainly an important factor in getting him — the immediate impact holds just as much weight. You saw that on Sunday as Quintana threw seven innings of shutout ball with 12 strikeouts, three hits and no walks for an 83 Game Score per Baseball Reference — tied for best in his career. Suddenly, this all felt different than it had during the longer valleys than apexes of this odd roller coaster of 2017 for the Cubs.
Where Jake Arrieta’s dominant start Saturday against his old team was a relief, him looking like the former Cy Young winning form that was missing a lot of this season, Quintana’s first Cubs start a day after was a statement to the league and team itself that nothing is over. An infectious swagger we saw last year seemed to be, yeah, back.
And if the bats have re-warmed, that’s great for Quintana, who’s now 50-14 when receiving three or more runs from his offense. He’s a savior for a beleaguered starting rotation, and his entrance into the mix changes the game for this team. Want to think Rick Sutcliffe in 1984? When the Cubs acquired him from the Indians, he’d pitched at a sub-replacement-level player clip that year before pitching the best half of baseball of his career, whereas Quintana is currently 12th among pitchers in WAR this season, per Fangraphs. That’s not to say that Quintana will win the NL Cy Young this season like Sutcliffe did, but he’s one of baseball’s most underrated players, basically being Jon Lester the past three years for far less money.
There’s no common sense involved in thinking him joining this team isn’t a big deal for right now and beyond. Not only is Quintana’s presence resonating immediately on the field, but his deal allows wiggle room for more moves to happen right now and later.
“(The White Sox) were able to ask a lot from teams because of his talent and consistency and also because of that contract,” Hoyer said in an interview with Dan Bernstein and Jason Goff on 670 The Score on Thursday.
“If we had traded for a young pitcher who was really talented that had a fairly big contract already, that inhibits our ability to do some other things. I think by getting Quintana, not only can we get the contract, but we also have a chance to go out and do some other things, because it gives us the freedom.”
It just can’t be understated what injecting a player like Quintana — whose capabilities his new teammates were all aware of before the trade — can do for a roster like this wandering under a spell of mediocrity.
“Energy,” manager Joe Maddon said about these “new” Cubs. “The most impressive part has been the energy. I really believe that if we play with that kind of internal fire, that energy, we’re going to win a lot of games in the second half. That’s the difference for me. It’s just how we feel about ourselves.”
Weird how some rest and a statement trade can bring that … back.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.