He expected to be excitable and was early in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Monday afternoon. But Cubs pitcher Jose Quintana also managed to surprise himself in the process.
Even though a raucous Wrigley Field crowd provided him with more emotions than he’d ever experienced, Quintana’s pregame preparation and an abundance of first-pitch strikes helped calm him down.
The combination was more than enough to get Quintana going. Once he did, the 2016 All-Star pitcher found another gear and managed to exceed the perhaps unfair hype created by the midseason blockbuster trade that brought him to the Cubs from the White Sox in mid-July. Quintana allowed an unearned run and two hits in 5 2/3 innings and the Cubs rallied for a critical 2-1 victory over the Washington Nationals to take a 2-1 series lead.
“I was surprised at me being in control because sometimes we try to do too much,” Quintana said. “That happens. That’s part of baseball. But I enjoyed that time and we did a good pregame and all my stuff was good.”
Quintana has experienced a number of big moments throughout his career from the All-Star Game to the World Baseball Classic to last month’s pennant race.
But the left-hander had never faced the kind of test that only October baseball provides. Even he wondered before Sunday’s workout if he’d be amped up when he stepped on the mound.
As expected, he was.
Quintana said the reception from the Wrigley crowd was different than anything he’d experienced and was nervous. But aside from one pitch, manager Joe Maddon didn’t see much different in Quintana’s demeanor.
“He overboogied on the third pitch, that elevated fastball to (Trea) Turner,” Maddon said. “Otherwise he really controlled his emotions.”
Just as they planned, Quintana was aggressive against a powerful Nationals lineup and littered the zone with strikes. He threw nine strikes in 13 first-inning pitches, including all three first pitches, and induced three weak grounders. In all, Quintana threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 22 hitters.
And that was all he needed to keep pace with Nationals ace Max Scherzer.
“When he’s throwing strikes, it’s tough to get on him,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “Any time you hit those spots and he’s throwing strikes and mixing it up as well as he was, getting some swings and misses, you know he’s on.”
Not only did Quintana hit his spots, he had great stuff with 14 swings and misses among his 96 pitches, including six with his curveball. That led to seven strikeouts and only walk.
The combination of stuff, hitting spots and thorough trust of the gameplan provided Quintana with enough to navigate the Washington lineup with little trouble.
“He has a lot of conviction in what he’s doing,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. “You can see it in his eyes. He prepared himself before the game, a few days before the game. That’s a good thing for us.”
“He was amazing. We did everything he wanted. He was cool, had a good pace. He slowed it down a lot. That was a huge key for us.”
Contreras said Quintana was in such a rhythm that he didn’t want to bother him on the bench because Quintana was so dialed into the game. About the only thing that did bother Quintana was a pair of third-inning errors that jeopardized the scoreless contest. With two outs, a Zobrist error extended a rally, putting runners on the corners. Quintana missed on the next two pitches to Anthony Rendon, but got him to fly out to deep right-center.
Quintana only got stronger in the later innings, striking out the side in the fifth. He threw a curve in the dirt to get Harper swinging to start the sixth. Rendon grounded out weakly and Quintana would have gotten through six if Kyle Schwarber didn’t drop Daniel Murphy’s lazy fly to left, one of four Cubs errors.
Though Quintana didn’t get a chance to strand Murphy on third, he was more than pleased with how he handled the moment.
“I think in the past sometimes I’ve been a little quick in the stretch,” Quintana said. “I just tried to be relaxed and just hit my spots. That’s all I tried to do and that worked good.”
“Honestly, I was a bit nervous in the first inning. I was (off) a couple pitches. After that, I tried to be focused.”
“It was amazing.”