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Jose Quintana’s debut set the bar high with the Cubs

(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

Jose Quintana had quite the debut for the Chicago Cubs. After five-plus seasons with the Chicago White Sox, the rebuilding Sox sent the 28-year-old left-hander to the Cubs in exchange for four minor-leaguers – including slugging outfielder Eloy Jimenez. Quintana had posted an un-Quintana-like 4.49 ERA in 18 starts with the Sox, but his 2.70 ERA over his last seven starts indicated he was turning a corner.

Then he took it to another level. Quintana tossed seven shutout innings for the Cubs on Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles, allowing three hits, zero walks, and striking out 12. That was one strikeout shy of his career-best of 13, and if measured by Game Score – a composite pitching stat used to rank the quality of a performance – it was actually tied for the best performance in Quintana’s career.

All things considered, it was a nice first impression.

When Quintana took the mound, the Cubs had come out of the All-Star break having won two games in a row for the first time in nearly a month. Their 8-0 win in Baltimore earned them a sweep over the floundering Orioles, extending their winning streak to three games and moving them within 4.5 games of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers.

And although Quintana was masterful in leading the Cubs to victory, it shouldn’t be expected that he spin a gem like that every time out. The fact that this was one of the very best performances of his career also tells us that there’s little room for improvement right now.

In his career, Quintana has a 3.49 ERA in 170 starts – 169 of them with the White Sox – to go along with a 7.6 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. Those numbers are even more impressive over just the last three seasons, when the lefy started 96 games, threw 614.2 innings, and put together a cumulative 3.29 ERA.

In his start in Baltimore, Quintana was mostly throwing fastballs and curveballs, keeping batters off balance by consistently hitting 93-94 with the heater and throwing his curve in the lower part of the zone for strikes. That’s pretty much his reputation, and he was in control from the very beginning.

BALTIMORE, MD - JULY 16: Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jose Quintana (62) pitches in the third inning during an MLB game between the Chicago Cubs and the Baltimore Orioles on July 16, 2017, at Orioles Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

BALTIMORE, MD – JULY 16: Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jose Quintana (62) pitches in the third inning during an MLB game between the Chicago Cubs and the Baltimore Orioles on July 16, 2017, at Orioles Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

In the end, the Cubs didn’t need Quintana to dominate to win the game. But the fact that he did gives them a lot of hope going forward.

It has been no secret that the starting pitching has been a big problem for the Cubs this season. The starters posted a 4.66 ERA in the first half of the season, helping lead Chicago to a 43-45 record. With Eddie Butler no longer a part of the starting rotation, Mike Montgomery set to head back to the bullpen when Kyle Hendricks returns from the disabled list, and Jake Arrieta posting a 3.27 ERA in 63.1 innings over his last 11 starts, the Cubs suddenly have a quality top-four pitchers.

And it may be just having played against the Orioles, who have a shocking 6.30 ERA as a team since the beginning of June, but the offense has begun to click as well. Willson Contreras has a .936 OPS since May 9, spanning his last 192 plate appearances. The Cubs’ young catcher, like rookie Ian Happ, has really come into his own as the season has rolled on. If the offensive explosion continues, it’ll be debatable exactly how much credit is due to the Quintana trade energizing a clubhouse that may have started to let doubt creep into their minds.

But that energy will wear off, at some point. What’s left will simply be the 2017 Cubs, for better or worse. Quintana enters play on Monday with a 4.20 ERA in 111.1 innings pitched this season between both the Sox and Cubs – not exactly Cy Young material. But that’s a bit of an outlier, as Quintana posted his best season last year with the White Sox; a 3.20 ERA in 208 innings and his very first All-Star appearance.

Something similar should be the expectation for the rest of this season, and that should be good enough. The Cubs are a talented ballclub, having won 103 regular season games the year prior – not to mention the World Series. The majority of that team remains in the Cubs’ clubhouse, now with the addition of Quintana.

The Cubs may make more additions to the roster, as well. Although their minor leagues are depleted from the trade with the Sox, they’ve been tied to rumors relating to dealing for a veteran backup catcher, an extra bullpen arm, and even another starting pitcher. But the biggest addition to their team this year, and possibly the biggest of any team in baseball, is certainly Quintana.

And if the Cubs are back in the postseason in October, it’ll be because he played a significant role in getting them there.

*****

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