Padres’ Quantrill finds ways to compete, but no substitute for baseball


San Diego Padres starting pitcher Cal Quantrill works against the Tampa Bay Rays. (Gregory Bull/AP)

TORONTO – These last few weeks have led to an unfamiliar feeling for Cal Quantrill. Under ordinary circumstances, this time of year would represent the return of baseball. After a winter of training, this would be time for the 25-year-old Padres starter to test himself against the National League’s best.

But now, with the MLB schedule on hold and no return date in sight, that’s no longer an option. Instead, Quantrill’s back in off-season mode and he’s missing baseball more than ever.

It’s not that Quantrill has never gone without the sport – he’s from Port Hope, Ont., after all, and baseball’s not exactly a year-round possibility there. This is different, though. Now, Quantrill’s facing an indefinite delay, one that has led him to realize just how much he enjoys competing and just how badly he wants the game to return.

From his place in San Diego, the right-hander tries to find his baseball fix however he can. He spends part of every day preparing for the season, of course, working out when possible and keeping up on his arm care. Lately, though, he’s been looking for more. The other day he watched a re-broadcast of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game (his verdict: “unreal”) and he’s been thinking of downloading MLB: The Show.

Of course, none of it’s a substitute for the game on the field, which is why Quantrill’s so eager for the 2020 season to begin. Personally, this season’s a big one for him. And even more broadly, baseball means something to so many people.

“Whatever it takes where we can safely, following all of the rules and guidelines, put players on the field, the sooner the better,” Quantrill said in a phone conversation this week. “If that means double-headers, if that means seven-inning games, if that means March Madness? I’m OK with anything, because I think that baseball means so much to this part of the world. It just means so much to us as people.

“I want to be the first people on the field making people’s days better, reminding everyone that this is what we can be and what we’ll be again. So in my opinion, nothing’s off the table.”

The stakes are high for Quantrill in 2020. A first-round pick in 2016, he graduated from Stanford University with an engineering degree. After three seasons in the minors, he debuted with the Padres last year, posting a 5.16 ERA in 103 innings. This spring he was competing for a rotation spot, and perhaps on his way to winning one; he had allowed just two hits in seven innings, striking out nine.

But just as Quantrill was starting to feel game-ready, MLB shut down spring training camps in Florida and Arizona. All the momentum he was building just disappeared.

Under those circumstances, any player would be disappointed, but rather than dwell on that feeling, Quantrill has tried to re-direct his attention in constructive ways. He’s reading more these days and reviewing last year’s game tape in search of an edge. Plus, he needs outlets for all of his competitive energy.

“This is probably a fault of mine, but there aren’t many things I want to do if I can’t find a way to win it,” said Quantrill, the son of former all-star reliever Paul. “If I’m brewing a cup of coffee, I want to brew the best coffee, or I want to brew it the fastest. If I’m playing a video game, I’m certainly not playing to lose. If you’re able to go to a run, see if you can set a personal record. If you’re able to lift, if you have access to the equipment, try and be a little better.”

As Quantrill points out, it’d be dangerous for pitchers to assume that the likes of Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger aren’t using this time constructively. So unless he wants to fall behind, he needs to take advantage of this hiatus, too.

“If you watch the guys who are really, really good, I’ll bet you anything you want to bet that the best players in our game are still getting better right now,” he said. “I want to be one of the best players in this game, so I need to use this time valuably and I’ll continue to try to find ways to do it. Hopefully it can be better than just beating someone in MLB: The Show, but if that’s what I’ve got for now, that’s what I’ve got.”

While players spend most of the year training alongside others, social distancing now makes that impossible. Not only are spring camps closed, many gyms are shut down and contact with others must be limited in all forms. Something as simple as throwing poses a challenge, so Quantrill jokes that he’s “probably only a couple steps away from just buying a net, setting it up in the backyard and trying to put a hole through the thing.”

But as he says, if any players can make the most of this downtime it should be starting pitchers. Even at the best of times, they’re off four out of every five days.

“We have a little bit of training in this field of how to fill time with valuable stuff when there’s nothing to do,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my best – and I’m not perfect – but I’m trying to do my best to make this downtime productive. I think the worst thing you can do right now is take your foot off the pedal completely, shut down mentally and basically just stop learning. Then it really is a waste.”

Some physical work is still possible, even now. For example, Quantrill has no trouble completing the stability and flexibility drills that became routine for him after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015. As he says, “this would be the absolute worst time to stop doing them” considering players may be asked to ramp up faster than usual in an attempt to play more games. More intense workouts have proven challenging from home, yet not impossible.

It all amounts to a rather complex balancing act: build as much physical strength as possible in preparation for the season, minimize injury risk and, most importantly, stay safe at a time that the pandemic continues spreading with alarming speed.

“It’s tough. We’re all trying to find ways to follow the rules and be good citizens and also, to the best of our ability, continue life,” Quantrill said.

To a large extent, what happens next is out of the league’s control. Public health must come first under the circumstances. But it’s certainly possible that Quantrill will pitch for the Padres at some point this summer, and if that happens, it will mean more than ever. Even a few weeks without baseball have been enough to make that abundantly clear.

“People are realizing just how much they love this sport now,” Quantrill said. “Anyone from players to coaches to fans. Now that I don’t have it, I can pretty succinctly tell you how much I love it. Now that it’s been taken away from me it’s like ‘oh my goodness. How could I ever live a life without baseball?’ Now we’re seeing what that’s like.”

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