Panic deepens as Jose Quintana's struggles return in full force

Panic deepens as Jose Quintana's struggles return in full force

As Cubs fans anxiously await Tuesday night's game in Atlanta to see how Yu Darvish responds after a stint on the disabled list, they were "gifted" even more anxiety and stress watching Jose Quintana pitch in Monday's rain makeup between the two teams at Wrigley Field.

Quintana couldn't make it out of the fifth inning, surrendering 6 runs on 3 homers, 3 walks and 9 hits in 4.2 innings. That raised his season ERA to 5.23 and WHIP to 1.57.

This after he had actually seemed to be turning a corner the last three times out, allowing only 1 earned run in the last 17 innings despite still working around control issues (7 walks in that span).

"Things were really bad with command early in the game," Quintana said. "Almost 30 pithes [in the first inning], that's so bad. I feel really bad with that. ... It's so frustrating. I'm really pissed off."

Given the White Sox just left Wrigley Field, Quintana's rough start became a hot-button topic with Cubs fans as they watch Eloy Jimenez absolutely tear up the minor leagues for the team on the other side of town:

Those questions are even being asked on the other side of town.

Obviously that doesn't include everybody in the Cubs fanbase, but Quintana will always be linked to Jimenez and flamethrowing right-hander Dylan Cease.

These comments will only become more frequent the closer Jimenez and Cease get to success in the big leagues.

But there's also nothing the Cubs can do about that now or ever. They made this trade and it was a very good one at the time and can't possibly be judged less than a year into the deal.

The 2017 Cubs received a major jolt the second Quintana walked through the door after the All-Star Break and it helped lead the charge toward the top of the National League Central and a third straight trip into the NLCS. Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon have both said several times they don't believe last year's team would've reached that level of success without the Quintana trade.

Quintana is still only 29 years old and has team options for the 2019 and 2020 seasons at a very affordable rate. 

This is a guy who posted a career 3.53 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in his career prior to 2018. Chances are very high he will figure it out at some point and get back to being a top-of-the-rotation starter for the Cubs.

However, in the first 8 starts of 2018, it's not hard to empathize with the Cubs fans that are panicking. Eight starts is hardly a small sample size, especially when Quintana is averaging merely 5 innings per outing.

He's walking batters at a rate nearly double his career mark and has admitted he's falling behind hitters way too often and is something he's been working hard to correct. He did throw a first-pitch strike to 20 of the 28 batters he faced Monday, a slight tick up in percentage from his past two starts (15-of-24 and 11-of-20).

"To this point, Q's just not been on top of his game with his command and he's normally a really good command guy, knowing where his fastball is going," Joe Maddon said. "But it wasn't happening today."

The main issue Monday was actually how hard Quintana was getting hit when he did throw pitches in the zone. The Braves recorded 11 different batted balls of 95+ mph exit velocity off Quintana, including 8 balls hit 101.9 mph or higher.

But hey, at least Quintana didn't walk a batter after the first inning, so maybe that's a silver lining to build on for the next start?

What does Quintana have to do in his next outing to get back to the pitcher he usually is?

"Just trust himself," Maddon said. "His delivery is good, he's got a clean line to the plate, his ball spins well. I just think it's a matter of trusting himself. That's it. He's gonna pitch well. He's very good. He has pitched well, but when he's off like that — when the walks start popping up on him early, that's the unusual part.

"We didn't help him with the defense. We caused him to throw more pitches and more stressful pitches. That's part of the gig, too, and he got out of it. Overall, command isn't as good as we normally see with him."

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Offensive production is very much judged in a "what have you done for me lately" manner.

And by that measure, the Cubs offense is just fine and there's no need to tinker.

However, overall, this lineup has weaknesses, including second base (Cubs rank 21st in MLB with .675 OPS from their second basemen) and center field (19th in MLB with .698 OPS). Before the trade deadline hits, it seems apparent Theo Epstein's front office will add another hitter of some sort to augment this offense. 

But what if the Cubs had an in-house solution?

Victor Caratini had another big game Sunday — going 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly RBI and his only out was a 109.1 mph liner to left field — and is now hitting .301 on the season with a .383 on-base percentage and .505 slugging percentage.

Caratini wasn't initially scheduled to be in the Cubs lineup Sunday, but with Willson Contreras nursing a sore foot, he got the call and continued to do what he's done all year — play very solid defense behind the plate with quality production at the dish. 

Between Caratini's emergence this season and Contreras' huge bounceback year, Cubs catchers are pacing baseball in OPS, average, OBP, SLG, runs and RBI and rank second in homers and hits.

So with Contreras' ability to play the outfield, will the Cubs try to find ways to get both Caratini and Contreras in the starting lineup at the same time in search of more consistent offense?

"We haven't talked about that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Sunday's game. "We have a lot of guys who have to be in the lineup when things are rolling properly. I haven't looked at that right now, honestly."

Maddon conceded that as a switch-hitter, Caratini is still utilized almost exclusively as a left-handed hitter. The second-year player is hitting .556 with a homer and a double from the right side this season, but that's come in only 10 plate appearances.

Maddon also admitted the best way to get both catchers in the lineup at the same time is if there's an injury or a natural day off for a regular player. For example, Contreras played a game in right field in Pittsburgh before the All-Star Break while Caratini started behind the plate with both Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward nursing minor injuries.

Caratini has also drawn some starts at first base over the last couple years when Anthony Rizzo is either ailing or getting a day off. 

But beyond that, it doesn't appear as if we're gonna see Contreras and Caratini as cohorts in the starting lineup on even a semi-regular basis.

"Maybe part of the reason they're both playing so well or Victor's hitting as well as he is or playing as well as he is is based on the amount of usage," Maddon said. "Everybody sees a guy do well and all of a sudden, that immediately indicates he should play more often. Maybe just playing the right amount."

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

The Cubs have made a trademark out of having a strong second half, and after beating the Pirates 8-3 Sunday, they completed the sweep in their first series since the all-star break and look on their way to putting more space in the NL Central between themselves and the other four teams.

But through the first three innings, the Cubs and starter Jose Quintana looked more like they were going to let the third game of this series get away.

Quintana held the Pirates scoreless in the first two innings, but then in the third he gave up three consecutive singles, threw a wild pitch, allowed a sacrifice fly, and gave up a double, undoing the 1-0 lead the Cubs had established in the second inning on Robel Garcia's double.

But the difference in Sunday's game was how Quintana pitched after that. He tossed three more scoreless innings, completing a 90-pitch quality start and even contributed an RBI single in the fourth.

"He always goes out there and he competes. He’s so focused," Kris Bryant said of Quintana after the game. "He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does."

Leading up to Quintana's single, Garcia hit a two-out double and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle opted to walk David Bote to get Quintana to the plate for what seemed like a sure out. Instead, Quintana poked Trevor Williams' four-seam fastball to right field, allowing Garcia to score from second and trim Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2.

Quintana had already thrown a scoreless top of the fourth inning, but he gave two more after his RBI single. The hit was a timely confidence boost.

"Felt great, finally to get the base hit," Quintana said. "So excited."

This was Quintana's fifth career RBI and first since 2017, and it may have helped catapult the rest of the offense. The Cubs would score three more runs in the fifth inning to take the lead, and then added some cushion with another three in the sixth.

"Literally, when Q got that hit, Tony goes, 'homer right here,'" Jason Heyward joked after the game.

It wasn't Quintana who got the home run, but Heyward was the one to give the Cubs the lead with his own two-run homer in the fifth after Victor Caratini's sacrifice fly had scored Bryant to tie the game earlier that inning.

"We have fun with that," Heyward said of Rizzo's joking. "But we pull for them obviously because they’re out there pitching their ass off. They want to keep the game close, and sometimes they need to pick themselves up too."

Quintana's last three innings on the mound kept his team in the game. He started the fourth with a walk to Elias Diaz and then did not allow another baserunner until Corey Dickerson's one-out single in the sixth.

"I kept throwing my pitches and believing in my stuff and waiting for our offense to come back in the game, and they did really well," Quintana said. "Always in my mind was they can take more runs, so I wanted to keep it there and wait for our hitters to get back in the game. They did great work. It’s a really good feeling around us right now."

One of the keys to a strong second half for the Cubs is getting more wins like Sunday's. Bryant said after the game that it's important to get a few wins that you shouldn't, like one when the team is down 3-1 halfway through the game. And especially in the last game of a three-game set where the Cubs had already won the first two. With the series win safely secured, it would be easy to let up and drop the final game, but Quintana's timely hit and good pitching in the second half of his outing helped make the difference.

"As soon as he hits his knock, he pitched really well after that," Joe Maddon said. "He got better after the knock."

Quintana might struggle to live up to the expectations of coming from across town in a trade two years ago that cost two darling prospects, but it's worth noting that the average ERA in the National League is 4.39, and after Sunday's win, Quintana's is down to 4.21. If he's the team's back-of-the-rotation starter, that'll do just fine.

He's very capable of stringing together quality starts and pitching like the team's ace, like he has over his last three outings with three straight quality starts, but there are also stretches like his run from May 26 to June 22 where he lost six starts in a row and his ERA climbed from 3.73 to 4.50.

Either way, if Quintana makes more of his starts like Sunday's, the Cubs are in very good position to continue their yearly trend of winning in the second half of the season.


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream