TEMPE, Ariz. — The last time Jose Quintana started a game that mattered for the Cubs, it went very quickly. Too quickly.
Two innings and six runs after he took the mound, he was done. A few hours later, so were the Cubs, who were eliminated by the Dodgers in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.
RELATED STORIES Jason Heyward gets look in leadoff spot during Cubs’ 6-4 spring win over Angels Cubs’ Willson Contreras tries to keep focus on baseball while mind on brother
More than four months later, as he prepares for his first full season with the Cubs, Quintana still thinks about how quickly his experience with October baseball ended. Too quickly.
“I have the playoffs in my mind,” he said Friday after facing seven Angels batters in his first start of the spring. “It starts right here. It’s a long way to go [in spring training] for me to get ready. But you stay hungry to [get] back to October.”
Quintana, who pitched a scoreless first inning before allowing three hits and a run in the second, could be a key to an October return in more ways than one.
The White Sox’ Opening Day starter a year ago, Quintana slots into the fourth spot in the Cubs’ rotation. Big things are expected from him as his comfort level grows with teammates and the team’s unusually detailed and tailored pitching strategy.
Quintana also gets an assist in the Cubs’ efforts to land Yu Darvish, the $126 million jewel of their offseason, because of the flexibility he provided in their payroll plans. He’ll make $8.85 million this year, with club options for $10.5 million each of the next two on an especially team-friendly contract.
“We almost felt like we were acquiring 1½ pitchers in that deal because it would go halfway towards acquiring someone else,” Epstein said of the trade with the Sox on July 13.
The fact that the “someone else” was Darvish means the Cubs, in just seven months, added two pitchers who started opening day for their club last year. And neither got the call for the Cubs this year (Jon Lester will start the opener).
“We have a pretty good pitcher every single game,” Quintana said of the rotation. “I don’t want to say it’s the best one, but it’s one of the best ones.”
Quintana, an All-Star in 2016, is no small part of that after going 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA with the Cubs last year, showing flashes of dominance.
His performance in a pair of playoff starts before that elimination game against the Dodgers was impressive, too. He allowed two earned runs in a combined 10⅔ innings in those games, both no-decisions and both against staff aces in the Nationals’ Max Scherzer (Game 3 of the NL Division Series) and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (Game 1 of the NLCS).
“He always wanted to be there, and he was there and he handled it really well,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s got the taste now. Blood in the water. You’ve got to have it again.
“Pitching that late into the year, pitching into significant games like that — heads up. He’s really set up to have a good year.”
Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.