MIAMI — It was just a quiet, emotionless comment early in spring training from the most earnest and understated starting pitcher in the Cubs’ rotation.
Goals for 2019?
“For sure I want to go back to the All-Star Game,” Jose Quintana said.
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, and the Cubs’ fifth starter in name only looks like a man with a vision that might be starting to come to life.
Armed with a newly refined changeup, a devastating curveball and a swing-and-miss high fastball, the Cubs left-hander made quick work of the no-name Marlins with seven scoreless innings in a 4-0 victory at Marlins Park.
It came five days after another seven-inning gem to beat the Pirates 2-0 — giving him 14 consecutive scoreless innings with 18 strikeouts and just one walk in the two starts.
“Q was on top of his game again,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Great command of everything. Great carry on his pitches. The curveball as good as we’ve seen it. And now the change is becoming a force.
“He’s pitching with everything he’s got with a lot of confidence, and there’s no reason why he cannot continue that method.”
Quintana (2-1) didn’t allow a runner to reach second until a two-out double by Austin Dean in the seventh, but he followed that with his seventh strikeout of the night to retire Lewis Brinson for the final out.
The timing couldn’t be better for the Cubs, who are going with a four-man rotation until at least April 27, or until ace Jon Lester returns from a hamstring injury, whichever comes first.
“We’re together,” Quintana said of the tight-night starting corps. “We know how strong Jon is for our rotation, and we’ve got to take care of his back.”
Since the game in which Lester got hurt, the Cubs have gone 5-2 to pull within two games of .500 for the first time since April 1.
Quintana’s performance has been as big as any Cubs player in that span. He has recorded back-to-back scoreless starts for the first time since being acquired in July 2017 from the White Sox for prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease.
This is only the third time in his career he has pitched consecutive scoreless outings of at least seven innings. The last time was in 2014.
“We have a long season ahead, and we’re trying to win as many games as we can,” he said. “Every time we try to do better. That’s what I focus on. And right now, I’m feeling great.”
Javy Baez became just the third Cubs shortstop in 60 years to record at least three hits in three consecutive games. He hit a long home run to right-center on a night the ball didn’t carry well.
Center fielder Albert Almora Jr. — whose family and friends were pregame guests on the field, wearing Almora T-shirts with his No. 5 in a Superman “S” logo — made two exceptional catches, including a diving catch of ex-Cub Starlin Castro’s sinking liner to straightway center in the sixth with a runner on base.
But this night belonged to -Quintana.
“He’s totally motivated,” Maddon said. “He’s always had the look. For me, the difference [this year] is the willingness and ability to use everything he owns, the curveball and the changeup. And now the carry on the fastball becomes even quicker. They’re late to react to it.
“He’s in a good place right now. We’ve just got to keep him there.”
Whether he ever makes people drop all the unfair comparisons to Jimenez and Cease, Quintana does admit he allows himself to think about earning a second career All-Star selection.
“Always,” he said after the postgame media attention died down. “It’s a goal for every pitcher. And if you make an All-Star Game, it’s become you’re out there winning games, because you’ve been doing something good for your team.”