Cubs vow urgency in July: ‘No room to slide now,’ says Anthony Rizzo

BALTIMORE – If it’s not now, it might be next year for the Cubs.

At least that’s the way a lot of them looked at this first week or two out of the All-Star break – even before the front office pulled off the crosstown-shocker trade that landed left-hander Jose Quintana from the White Sox on Thursday.

“I don’t think from our perspective anything’s different than what were already set out to do coming into the second half,” World Series MVP Ben Zobrist said.

Two games under .500, 5½ games behind the first-place Brewers, the defending champs were the most underachieving team in baseball heading to the break – never more than four games over .500, never more than two games under and never showing signs that change was imminent.

Rizzo homers in the eighth Saturday -- one of eight homers for the Cubs in two games in Baltimore.

“There’s a lot to be said for having a break at the right time,” said pitcher Jake Arrieta, who turned in one of his best starts of the season Saturday in the Cubs’ 10-3 victory over the Orioles.

The Cubs pounded the Orioles’ worst-in-baseball rotation the first two games out of the break to win back-to-back games during the same road trip for the first time since April.

It might be the start of something – or not, if the first half was any indication.

At the very least it syncs well with Quintana’s debut Sunday, just ahead of John Lackey’s return from the disabled list the next series in Atlanta.

“It’s just that time to really find our groove,” lefty Mike Montgomery said. “Adding him, and just what these guys are capable of, we feel pretty good about it.”

The start of something? It better be if they plan to make a move before the sense of urgency morphs into desperation.

If the first two games didn’t already suggest it, the schedule out of the break is comparatively soft, with also-rans in the Orioles and Braves on the road, followed by the mediocre Cardinals and rebuilding White Sox at home, followed by two more against the White Sox on the South Side and then a three-game showdown with the Brewers in Milwaukee.

That leads into July 31, trading deadline day.

“It’s a really important two weeks,” team president Theo Epstein said Friday, talking about the team’s plans to add more before the deadline. “If we can get hot and start to play the way that we know we’re capable of, that probably puts us in a little bit more aggressive posture, trying to maximize all 25 spots on the roster and maybe even do some things for this year.

“But if we don’t get hot, obviously, we’d have a little bit longer-term perspective.”

First baseman Anthony Rizzo said the Cubs don’t need any more incentive than they already had coming out of their four days off.

“Winning’s addicting. We want to get back to the top and be the best,” Rizzo said. “There’s no room to slide now. We’re going to go out there and keep playing hard and believe it’s going to turn.”

That’s where the starting pitching comes in, say Joe Maddon and history.

“It’s going to start with us. We know it,” Montgomery said. “We won last year because of our pitching. We’re kind of looking forward to that.”

After riding their 2.96 rotation ERA to a wire-to-wire division title last season, the Cubs have staggered in large part because of a first-half 4.66 rotation ERA that Arrieta improved Saturday, when he allowed just one earned run in 6 2/3 innings.

Quintana can make his impact felt Sunday.

If anything, said Jon Lester, there’s more incentive in not “wasting” Quintana’s talents than in pushing the front office to add more by the end of the month.

“It gives you a little shot in the arm and you say, ‘Hey, let’s get going and make this mean something’ as opposed to you make a trade and you waste prospects for nothing,” he said.

Quintana, of course, was acquired with the longer term in mind because he’s under club control through 2020. But Lester compared it to last year, when the Cubs acquired rent-a-closer Aroldis Chapman in July.

“If we don’t win the World Series [after that trade] you waste prospects for basically nothing,” he said. “That’s what gives players that little extra incentive to make trades work when guys to make big deals.”

What about Epstein making more this month?

“Obviously, he’s not going to make a big deal if we’re not doing well,” said Lester, who starts Monday in Atlanta. “That’s on us to play, and whatever he decides that we need, we need. But the guys in this clubhouse can’t worry about what’s going on up there, and who’s talking about what.

“If we don’t [make a deal], we have a really good team in this clubhouse, and we’ll continue to just try to play good baseball.”

“We can only control what we can control,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “We got Quintana, and we welcome him. He’s going to be part of something great.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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