One of baseball’s best kept secrets is about to step into the October spotlight for the very first time and everyone wonders how he’ll handle the moment.
Even though Jose Quintana has never pitched in the postseason, he said the key to his debut on Monday in Game 3 of the National League Division Series will be to keep things simple.
Prior to Sunday afternoon’s brunch-out at Wrigley Field, Quintana said he spent the previous two games soaking up the playoff atmosphere and taking notes from veteran teammates. The Cubs’ key midseason acquisition expects to be excitable when he faces Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals in front of a sellout crowd at Wrigley Field with the series tied 1-1. But Quintana also believes that all that matters is if hit his spots and stays out of the middle of the zone.
“I feel really good,” Quintana said. “I’m so excited. I try to be like, you know, cool, but be present and focus on my game.
“Like I say, I don’t want to change nothing. Just throw my ball well and just focus, pitch by pitch. At this time, a short series, it’s really important, every pitch.”
Quintana’s only other opportunity to reach the postseason in five seasons was with the 2012 White Sox, whose position players were beat up and its rotation simply ran out of gas in September. Even though this type of start is exactly why the Cubs made a blockbuster to acquire him, shipping elite hitting prospect Eloy Jimenez and hard-throwing righty Dylan Cease to the White Sox in July, it’s only natural to wonder how Quintana will fare. The 2017 postseason has been largely unkind to first-time starting pitchers so far as Arizona’s Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker, Boston’s Chris Sale and Colorado’s Jon Gray were all hit hard in their October debuts.
But the left-hander has come close to replicating a similar atmosphere when he pitched for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic against Team USA on March 11, retiring the first 17 hitters he faced.
Beyond that, Quintana pitched extremely well down the stretch for the Cubs during their drive to the NL Central title. Manager Joe Maddon cited Quintana’s brilliant Sept. 24 turn at Milwaukee when he struck out 10 during a three-hit shutout as evidence he’s ready. Quintana went 3-0 with a 2.82 ERA and 45 strikeouts with only four walks in 38 1/3 innings over his final six starts.
“I don’t want to keep going back in time, but that four-game series up there was really pertinent,” Maddon said. “He had a great look. I can only tell you --- we’re all into reading people’s faces and their vibe and their energy and all that stuff. And he had it. He has it. My only concern is that he’s over-amped a little bit too much, too soon tomorrow afternoon. But he’s wanted to be this guy.”
Similar to Sale, Quintana has always desired this moment. Reaching the postseason has been his goal every season from the first time he plays catch in spring training to his first bullpen to the first start. Quintana’s laser focus in between starts always made him an easy example for White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper to use as a model for his other pitchers to follow. It also contributed to the pinpoint command that has allowed him to excel as a big leaguer.
His former catch partner with the White Sox, pitcher Carlos Rodon, said that even during a simple warmup drill, Quintana always tried to hit an invisible circle between his legs at knee-high level.
That “focused practice,” as Cooper calls it, has always helped Quintana stay dialed in during trying moments. It’ll likely be critical once again when Quintana takes the hill on Monday against a team he’s never faced before.
“The approach never changes,” Quintana said. “I saw that with (Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester) and watching around the field in Washington was great. It’s exciting.
“John Lackey told me the last couple days, try to do your job. Just hit your spots and never change. The game’s the same and you’re going to feel the energy around you, so it’s really exciting. I’ve never seen games like this, and it’s really fun.”