Rested and refreshed, Cubs keep riding post-break winning wave

BALTIMORE -- You’ll have to excuse Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras for being a little too excited. After a dominant sweep of the struggling Baltimore Orioles, capped by a gem of a performance by newcomer Jose Quintana, Contreras made quite the dramatic declaration.

“I think we are back,” he said after Sunday’s 8-0 win. “We are back to where we were last year.”

OK, maybe not quite yet. At 46-45, it would be a bit of a leap to say that the 2016 Cubs have returned. However, their play through three games after the All-Star break is a reminder of what they could be in the second half.

It’s the time of the year when they have excelled each of the past two seasons, resulting in playoff runs. A healthy lineup, a new addition to the staff and the return of Kyle Hendricks in the coming days have the Cubs thinking about October again. After watching them score 27 runs in three games to dominate the Orioles, the playoffs feel like a possibility.

“I think the time off really helped us,” slugger Kris Bryant said of the break. “The four days cleared our heads and got us back to winning. The four days helped me. It was just a matter of time before we had some games like that.”

Bryant was one of eight Cubs to hit a home run over the weekend, but it was the balls that didn’t leave the park that most impressed manager Joe Maddon. In his estimation, the Cubs used the entire field to beat the Orioles pitching staff into submission.

Quintana also impressed Maddon, and the newly acquired starter might prove to be the exact player the team needed at this time. Cubs fans can dream about a rotation of Jon Lester (who throws Monday in Atlanta), a healthy Hendricks, a revitalized Jake Arrieta and Quintana pitching them to another division title. That’s a best-case scenario, as none, save Quintana, has been consistent this season. That doesn’t mean things can’t change. In a perfect world, Quintana has an effect on the rest of the staff.

“I do anticipate good,” Maddon said. “You watch Jake and Quintana today, I really believe [Lester’s] going to be amped up for that game [Monday] night.”

Remember, it was a week ago when Lester couldn’t get out of the first inning, and all looked lost for the Cubs in their 14-3 first-half finale loss to the Pirates. But that was then, and this is now. A new vibe has emerged three games into the second half. When asked what was best about this weekend -- the pitching or the hitting -- Maddon said neither.

“Energy,” he said. “The most impressive part has been the energy. If we play with that kind of internal fire, we’ll win a lot of games in the second half. That’s the difference for me: how we feel about ourselves.”

Some might scoff at the “will to win” idea championed by White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson, but if Maddon believes that a certain energy has returned -- and the players believe it too -- what’s to say they can’t ride that wave? Contreras is already there.

Are the Cubs back? Time will tell us the full story.

“Having some big wins [and] some less stressful baseball,” Bryant said. “We did that a lot last year. … We’re not pulling our hair out in one-run games every night.”

Not this past weekend, at least. Maybe the Cubs are back.