If left-hander Jose Quintana ever figures out how to get started, he can really help the Cubs finish off the National League Central.
For the fourth time in six starts, Quintana labored through a long, ugly first inning. But he suddenly regrouped to retire 14 consecutive Pirates and win a game the Cubs 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 on Wednesday that — along with the Cardinals’ surrender earlier in the day — set the stage for a two-team division race in September.
“He’s just over-amped, man,” manager Joe Maddon said. “This guy’s still trying to make an impression on us.
“But he was very good tonight. Hopefully, that’s going to be a catapult for him to get back into it.”
One of the more significant values the Cubs saw in trading for Quintana was that he’s under club control for three more years and able to fill upcoming rotation needs.
But with the second-place Brewers only 3½ games behind the Cubs, Quintana’s greatest value could be in the present.
So which Quintana are the Cubs getting for that last month?
Is it the dominant, confident ace who shut down the Orioles on three hits for seven scoreless innings in his Cubs debut last month? The commanding pitcher who retired 16 of the last 17 he faced Wednesday?
Or is it 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 got up? The shaky southpaw with 11 runs allowed (including four homers) in the first innings in his last six starts?
Quintana said he doesn’t feel pressure to live up to the expectations after the trade and — despite Maddon suggesting he’s still settling in — is comfortable six weeks after the deal.
“It’s the same game,” Quintana said. “I’m here to do my job and for one reason: I want to help this team make the playoffs.”
Maddon said the staff worked with Quintana on his approach between starts and believes the sharper curve and better overall command were a result.
“Outside of the first inning, he pretty much nailed it,” Maddon said. “You can see the look in his face. The guy is ready. If you can just keep him that ready and get him to make his pitches early on, [that’s key] because he keeps getting better game in progress.”
Take those four bad first innings away, and he has a 3.13 ERA in the 46 other innings he has pitched for the Cubs.
Quintana admits he might be trying to do too much early in games but remains confident.
How will he hold up in his first pennant race? Who will show up?
“We have so much faith in the guy,” Maddon said.
The Cubs got another boost of faith in the division race with the news that the Cardinals had traded Mike Leake — the $80 million free agent they signed before last year — to the Mariners for a minor-leaguer and international signing-cap space.
“I was surprised,” Maddon said.
The Cardinals acknowledged the move was about looking ahead to next year.
Maddon stopped short of calling it the white-flag trade that it was.
“He’s really tough on us, I know that,” Maddon said. “Go to the American League; I’m happy for that.”
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