Do you feel pressure to live up to The Trade?
“No, no,” Jose Quintana insisted late Wednesday night, surrounded by reporters at his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse after a football-score win (17-3) over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Sometimes, with the bad innings, I feel frustrated, because I want to try to help more. But I’m just focusing (on what’s) next.”
This game looked like it might spin out of control for Quintana, creating more questions about his state of mind, what the Cubs were thinking with that blockbuster trade and how fragile the defending World Series champs could be in October.
Even if the Cubs made that shocking deal with the White Sox while projecting the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations, nothing will be guaranteed then, and right now the rest of the National League Central is either conceding the division race or hedging for the future.
The Cubs expect the boom-and-bust periods with their offense, understanding that they earned championship rings with a pitching-and-defense formula. After a rocky first inning that led to scattered boos from the crowd of 36,620, Quintana settled down against the Pirates, looking like someone who could someday front a postseason rotation.
“I feel comfortable here,” Quintana said. “All the coaches and teammates make it easy to be here. Sometimes, it’s new for me. I’ve never been in that (position before). But I feel really good here.
“The game never changes. It’s the same game. I’m here to do my job for one reason: I want to help this team and make the playoffs.”
That is still the biggest takeaway from a wacky night where Javier Baez showed off his new braids and stole home plate: “I went too early. I messed it up. And I don’t know if you call that fixing it, but it worked.” Ian Happ almost hit for the cycle and became the sixth Cub with 20 homers this season, setting a franchise record. Kyle Schwarber blasted two homers and called out Happ for sprinting to third base on a flyball to left field.
Quintana missed those fireworks as a hard-luck pitcher on bad White Sox teams, and it will be interesting to see how he responds in the heat of a pennant race. This is the trade-deadline parallel to Jon Lester signing a $155 million megadeal and needing an entire season to feel more comfortable, except Quintana didn’t ease into this at all with six weeks of spring training in Arizona.
“I think sometimes they apply a little bit of pressure to themselves to live up to the moment,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s just human nature. I think he’s still settling in. He’s such a wonderful young man and he’s so concerned. He wants to do well. But, listen, I know he’s going to be really good for a long period of time.
“We could talk about (how) curveball command hasn’t been as good, or maybe the changeup (wasn’t) utilized enough. But the fastball location hasn’t been what it had been. And that’s what you got to figure out: Why? Things like that are very correctable. Part of it might be just because I’m trying too hard. Sometimes it’s just simple as that.”
Coming off an ugly loss to a Philadelphia Phillies team racing to the bottom for the No. 1 overall pick, Quintana gave up three singles and drilled back-to-back hitters with pitches in the first inning, putting the Cubs in a 2-0 hole.
But from the moment Quintana’s pitch hit Jordy Mercer’s right foot and forced in a run, the lefty retired 14 batters in a row – until Josh Bell drove a ball toward the top of the left-field bleachers – and 16 of his last 17. Quintana – who’s now 5-3 with a 4.50 ERA through nine starts as a Cub – lasted six innings and finished with nine strikeouts and zero walks.
This wasn’t a prove-it start as much as a confidence boost for the pitcher who’s so crucial for a first-place team that’s up 3.5 games on the Milwaukee Brewers.
“He’s just over-amped, man,” Maddon said. “This guy is still trying to make an impression for us and on us and with us. I just love his methods. He’s just such a professional. And hopefully that’s going to be kind of a catapult for him right there to get back into it."