So much for “the best is yet to come.”
If the Cubs eventually back up the manager’s words this month, they’ll do it with two starting pitching arms tied behind their backs after left-hander José Quintana joined Tyler Chatwood on the 10-day injured list Wednesday because of left lat inflammation.
It’s the most significant blow yet to a first-place team’s designs on a National League Central title and deep run in October.
With only 24 games left in the season, it’s at least questionable whether either veteran starter has enough time to return to the rotation for a team that took a four-game lead over second-place St. Louis with Wednesday's rain-delayed 8-2 victory in Pittsburgh.
"It's unfortunate to see, but with this team it's always next man up," said Kyle Hendricks (4-4) after beating the Pirates Wednesday night for the Cubs' fourth win in five games. "We're not worried about it. As far as Q, hopefully his isn't major, and it's just a short time, and he comes right back and feels good. He said it didn't hurt too much. ...
"But, yeah, you never like losing guys of that caliber who contribute so much to this team."
The Quintana move comes one day after the Cubs onboarded two relievers and two outfielders after four trades in the final 30 hours before Monday’s trade deadline, after which manager David Ross talked about how much better he believed the team performance was about to get.
Quintana, who had just returned from being sidelined two months by a thumb injury, returns to the IL just three days after Chatwood walked off the mound with a sore elbow, subsequently diagnosed with a forearm strain.
Ross said Quintana began experiencing discomfort during the final inning or two he pitched Sunday in Cincinnati and realized it was more than normal tightness when the pain returned during a bullpen session Wednesday.
Ross said the IL move was made "out of caution" but didn't have a timeline for the possible return of Quintana, who still has to be seen by team doctors in Chicago after the team returns home this week.
"It's going to be a lot about how he feels," the manager said.
Neither pitcher was fully stretched out after recent returns from the IL, Chatwood for a back strain that sidelined him for nearly three weeks.
So even with relatively short recovery times, it’s doubtful enough time remains in the short season for either to regain full starting strength before the season ends Sept. 27.
Of more immediate concern, Quintana’s loss came on the second day of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days — all against division opponents — adding significant strain to a depth-challenged rotation that already was in need of an extra starter to cover Saturday’s doubleheader against the Cardinals.
Rookie Adbert Alzolay, who pitched well in a five-inning spot start and a one-inning relief appearance last month, is expected to fill one of those starts and might get the first look to fill the fifth rotation slot until further notice.
Tyson MIller, who also made a short spot start this season, prospect Justin Steele and and swingman Colin Rea could be in the mix for Saturday’s other seven-inning game.
"We're going to figure out the pitching. We’ll get to that in due time," Ross said. "But right now we're happy with this win, and we'll figure out the rest of the rotation as we move forward."
The Cubs open a four-day, five-game series Friday against the Cardinals with Yu Darvish — the National League Pitcher of the Month for August — ready for the series opener.
Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks are in line for Sunday and Monday, with Alec Mills — who was the rotation’s sixth starter until Quintana’s thumb injury — in line for Tuesday’s series opener against the Reds.
For a team that still can’t rely on All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel as a high-leverage back-end answer in the bullpen, the last thing it needs is more issues with the rotation.
And there is no help from the outside on the way. Post-deadline waiver trades were eliminated this year.
Before the Quintana news broke Wednesday, Ross was asked what his biggest challenges as a first-year manager have been this season and, naturally, pointed to the strangeness of everything related to the shortened schedule and other COVID-19-related protocols and responsibilities.
“Trying to balance players’ mental health, physical health and their ability to go out there and perform, with many of them being away from their families,” he said. “Just the uniqueness of this season.
“And talking to other managers, especially recently, [they’re] just saying this definitely takes the cake, and having a lot more on your plate than normal.”
Ready or not, here comes one more big one for that plate — and the Cubs’ biggest test of a season full of them like none before.