If Jose Quintana could ever figure out how to get started, he might provide a significant answer for how the Cubs finish in the National League Central.
For the fourth time in six starts, the left-hander labored through a long, ugly first inning Wednesday night against the Pirates – but then just as suddenly regrouped to retire 14 consecutive batters to win a game teammates turned into a 17-3 rout on the strength of a seven-run fifth.
Acquired from the White Sox for the Cubs’ top two prospects at the All-Star break, Quintana and his slugging teammates finished off a sweep of the Pirates that – along with the Cardinals’ surrender earlier in the day – set the stage for a two-team division race over the final month of the season.
One of the more significant values the Cubs saw in jumping at the chance to trade for Quintana was the fact he’s under club control for three more years and able to backfill upcoming rotation needs.
But with September looming Friday – and the second-place Brewers just 3½ games behind the Cubs – Quintana’s greatest value could be all about now for the defending World Series champs.
But which Quintana are the Cubs getting for that important final month?
Is he the dominant, confident ace that shut down the Orioles on three hits for seven scoreless innings in his Cubs debut last month? The commanding lefty who retired 16 of the final 17 he faced in a six-inning victory Wednesday night?
Or is he the guy who gave up three hits and a run to the first five batters he faced, then hit back-to-back batters with 0-2 pitches to fall behind 2-0 before his teammates batted? The shaky left-hander with 11 runs allowed (including four homers) in the first innings over his last six starts?
“I think he’s settling in,” said manager Joe Maddon, who has emphasized in recent weeks that nothing is wrong physically with Quintana or his stuff. “He’s such a wonderful young man, and he’s concerned. He wants to do well. Listen, I know he’s going to be really good for a long period of time.”
Maddon said the staff has “drilled down” on what could be behind command and pitch-selection issues in some of those rough starts – which would seem to make Wednesday’s ninth start with the club an important one for Quintana.
“Part of it might be just because `I’m trying too hard,’ “ Maddon said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
“I don’t want to get over-exuberant, good or bad, about tonight,” he added.
Quintana has a 15.00 ERA in the first inning over his past six starts, including Wednesday – but a 3.13 ERA in the 46 other innings he has pitched for the Cubs.
How will he hold up in his first September pennant race? Which Q will provide which A down the stretch?
“I have so much faith in the guy – we do,” Maddon said.
The Cubs got a boost in faith in the division race before Quintana ever took the mound with the news the Cardinals had traded Mike Leake – the $80 million free agent they signed before last season – to the Mariners for a minor-leaguer and international signing-cap space.
“I was surprised,” Maddon said.
The Cardinals acknowledged the move was about giving young pitchers more opportunities as they start to look ahead toward next year.
“I still think we expect to compete,” Cards general manager John Mozeliak said. “We’re just going to do it with a different name and a different face.
Maddon stopped short of calling it the white-flag trade it obviously was.
“He’s really tough on us, I know that,” Maddon said. “Go to the American League; I’m happy for that.”