The Cubs weren’t away from Chicago for the entirety of the oft-discussed (and more oft cussed) 30-day stretch that saw them crisscrossing the country with nary a day of real rest, but it felt that way at times. Even when they did get back home, it was for little more than an extended layover. That lack of permanence is at least as taxing mentally as it is physically, which we saw when the Zombie Cubs were rolled Wednesday night in Arizona.
Getting a day off is only the long-awaited kickoff to a home stretch that sees the Cubs remaining in Chicago for the final 10 games of the season. The first three of those are on the South Side of town, which offers a different sort of homecoming for Jose Quintana.
He’ll open the series against the White Sox, the first time he’ll pitch against his old team since the trade that sent him to the other side of town last season.
“I knew one day, I’d go back to pitch there,” Quintana told reporters about his return to Guaranteed Rate Field. “I’m excited. I pitched a long time there and I have fresh memories. It’ll be good to be back. I’m just going to try to do my job and win a game.”
Though he’s been plenty good over his last six starts, posting a 2.10 ERA with 32 strikeouts over 34.1 innings, Quintana might get even more of a boost from pitching in his old stomping grounds. You carry a little emotional baggage with you even when you make the best moves, so this appearance has a cathartic feel to it.
That could also be the case for Kris Bryant, who’s looking to wash the taste of a brutal performance in Arizona out of his mouth. He’s still batting .288 in 68 plate appearances since returning from the DL September 1, but his homer in Monday’s contest was quickly overshadowed by a golden sombrero in Wednesday’s laugher.
When you watch guys like Bryant make the game look so simple at times, it’s easy to forget how hard baseball really is. That’s especially true when you’re catapulted right from the DL into the midst of that long stretch of games, all while playing multiple positions and trying to adjust new swing mechanics.
To that last item, it doesn’t take a scout to see that Bryant hasn’t been sticking with the two-handed finish he had touted prior to coming back. Not that it should really come as much of a surprise, given how hard any new habit is to maintain. And for a cage-rat like Bryant who’s honed his swing over millions of repetitions, a return to his familiar move was inevitable.
“In practice in the cage, I try to limit the intensity of the swings,” Bryant told the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales. “But in the game, my natural instincts take over. That’s how I’ve always swung and played the game. I don’t think I’ll change it.”
The goal from the start was really to reduce unnecessary stress on that right shoulder, which he notes can be accomplished though different practice habits. There was also a thought of increasing Bryant’s use of the opposite field, which it seems to have done in a very limited sample. But the oppo power is really just a matter of awareness and approach, so keeping his right hand on the bat doesn’t matter much.
Now he just needs to get comfortable, both with his swing and his overall rhythm. Being in Chicago for the next two weeks or so should afford Bryant the time to settle in with everything and to reestablish a feel for his stroke heading into the postseason.
The Cubs are also hoping to regain a feel for their Strop, as in Pedro, who fully intends to be back closing games before the season is up. He claims to be pain-free, though he’s admittedly not going full-speed at this juncture. Still, having access to the team’s state-of-the-art facilities while also remaining in the company of his teammates is sure to aid the healing process.
No one knows that better than Kyle Schwarber, who could be back in the lineup when the Cubs open against the Sox. Playing by AL rules would allow him to reduce the stress on his ailing back that much more, and he can do it without really having to travel. The Cubs could also benefit by using Daniel Murphy in the DH spot, which would greatly improve their infield defense without sacrificing his bat.
Finally, and this is as much about the fans, the Cubs are guaranteed to clinch the division at home this season. Not that I’m saying they’re guaranteed to win the division, I don’t need superstitious folks claiming I jinxed anything, just that a clinch will have to come at Wrigley.
It’s felt for the last month like the Cubs were holding their collective breath, though maybe that’s just because many of us were doing the same. Now that their scheduling marathon has ended, however, they’ve got a chance to breathe deeply and reset for a sprint to the finish that should set them up for the playoffs. Then I just hope you’ve got your oxygen tanks handy.