Key to Quintana's success? Changing it up

2 years ago

Against an all-too-familiar opponent, José Quintana authored his best outing since joining the Pirates, who blew a one-run lead in the ninth inning in a 3-2 loss to the on Thursday at PNC Park. Quintana allowed one run with nine strikeouts and no walks across five innings. The season is still young, but through one month, Pittsburgh’s best starter has, far and away, been the veteran.

“I thought he was good,” said manager Derek Shelton. “I thought his changeup was really good. In control of the game, was able to execute his fastball when he had to and use his changeup off it. I thought it was a really solid outing.”

For Quintana, it was his first start with at least nine strikeouts and no walks since Aug. 30, 2017. That start, strangely enough, was against the Pirates. Considering how the afternoon started, however, Quintana didn’t appear to be in for one of those days.

On Quintana’s first pitch of the afternoon, Andrew McCutchen turned back the clock in his own right with a towering solo home run to left field. Ben Gamel appeared to have it tracked, but even on a chilly April afternoon, the ball had enough juice to find the bleachers.

One pitch, one run. From there, Quintana buckled in and cruised.

Quintana struck out the next three batters to escape the first, then across the next four frames, he allowed nothing more than a trio of singles. After the McCutchen home run, he didn’t allow a runner to advance past second base. The innings were quick. Quintana’s stuff was sharp.

As good as Quintana was for most of the afternoon, he was in danger of being pulled after 4 2/3 innings for a second consecutive start. After allowing a two-out single in the fifth, a reliever could be seen getting hot in the bullpen. If Quintana had allowed another baserunner, his afternoon may have ended. Instead, on a payoff pitch to McCutchen, Quintana threw a get-it-in fastball that settled neatly into Roberto Pérez’s glove for a called strike three. The afternoon ended on Quintana’s terms.

Quintana’s mastery was a product of his ability to consistently locate his fastball, changeup and curveball. He kept his curveball and changeup low. He elevated the fastball when desired. The lefty finished with a called strike and whiff rate of 38.5%, easily his best mark of the season.

“I didn’t face him, but it was a lot of four-seams up and he was throwing the changeup and curveball off it,” said Christian Yelich, whose pinch-hit bunt single in the ninth set the table for McCutchen’s go-ahead two-run hit. “He’s got good stuff. He’s a good pitcher.”

The changeup, in particular, continues to be an important pitch, albeit one Quintana has seldom used in the past. Entering the year, 9.4% of Quintana’s pitches were changeups. Through four starts, he’s thrown it on 31.5% of his pitches. On Thursday, Quintana generated nine called strikes or whiffs with the changeup, matching his career high.

“I think the changeup has been that pitch that I need, and right now, I have control with it,” Quintana said. “I think it makes my fastball and curveball — my strengths — get better. I think I’ll get in a better position to get swings and misses. It’s huge.”

The Brewers have seen this film one too many times from Quintana. With his latest performance, Quintana has a 2.74 career ERA against Milwaukee across 111 2/3 innings, tied for his third-best mark against any team. Quintana joked that he doesn’t have anything against the Brewers, but always enjoys the competition — regardless of the uniform he’s wearing.

“I like to compete against these guys,” Quintana said. “It’s always a really good fight, a really good battle. They always have really good teams, close games. They battle in all their at-bats.”

Added Yelich: “We’ve seen him a lot over the years and he’s seemed to always do pretty good against us. We knew every time we faced him with the Cubs, it was going to be a tough game. We were going to have to do a good job to get something.”