By Jay Cohen
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO — Justin Wilson took a flight from New York to Detroit on Monday morning. He said hello to his family, put his two suitcases in his car and drove to Chicago.
One sweet ride to the top of the NL Central.
Wilson and Alex Avila joined the Cubs on Tuesday after they were acquired in a trade with Detroit, giving manager Joe Maddon another big arm in the bullpen and a veteran catcher to spell budding star Willson Contreras. The new acquisitions walked right into the heat of a pennant race with the reigning World Series champions, and it was quite a view after weeks of trade rumors.
“I couldn’t have been more excited to be here,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who turns 30 on Aug. 18, is 3-4 with 13 saves and a 2.68 ERA in 42 appearances. Avila is in the middle of one of his best seasons at the plate and also is known for his receiving skills.
Chicago parted with two minor league infielders in the trade, including Triple-A prospect Jeimer Candelario, along with a player to be named or cash. But president of baseball operations Theo Epstein felt it was worth it after the Cubs put together an impressive run after the All-Star break.
“We had a rough first half and we own that, but they absolutely responded the right way at the All-Star break and played great baseball, deserved to have some fortification here as we head down the stretch,” Epstein said. “If we hadn’t had that stretch and if we had continued to play tough baseball, we might have been on the other ends of some deals.”
Heading into a three-game series against Arizona, Chicago had won 13 of 16 to go from 5 1/2 games down in the division to a 2 1/2-game lead over Milwaukee. Left-hander Jose Quintana arrived in a trade with the crosstown White Sox on July 13, helping fuel the ascent to the top, but the Cubs have been getting better play all around after a lackluster start to the season.
“Coming off two out of three in Milwaukee, really a hard-fought series, our confidence is definitely pointing in the right direction,” Maddon said.
The Cubs also got first baseman Anthony Rizzo back for the series opener against the Diamondbacks after he missed Sunday’s 4-2 victory over the Brewers with back soreness. Reliever Justin Grimm and rookie catcher Victor Caratini were optioned to Triple-A Iowa to make room on the roster for Wilson and Avila.
The 30-year-old Avila, who played for the White Sox last year, is batting .274 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs in 77 games. He heard about the trade from his father — Tigers general manager Al Avila.
“He called me, we had just gotten into New York, and said we might be doing a deal here with the Cubs and so don’t unpack,” Alex Avila said. “That’s really it.”
While Alex Avila and Al Avila handled the trade like pros, the catcher said his mother likely had a different reaction.
“I think she’s probably more upset over the fact that she’s probably not going to see her grandchildren as much,” Alex Avila said. “You know, my family understands. We’re a baseball family, been in it forever.”
A grinning Epstein said the Cubs had some fun with the situation.
“We were joking around that we should ask Al about the players we’re getting back, tell me about their upbringing, how were they were raised,” he said. “Any annoying dads in the picture?”
Contreras has handled the bulk of the catching duties since Miguel Montero was cut a month ago. The 25-year-old Contreras hit .321 with seven homers and 19 RBIs in July, but the Cubs want to make sure he stays fresh through what they hope will be another long postseason run.
Avila also brings along 34 games of postseason experience, including Detroit’s 2012 World Series loss to San Francisco.
“We’ll get him out there,” Maddon said. “He’s a very good receiver, really handles pitchers well, so listen, I’m not afraid to put him out there at any time.”