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Cubs' Jose Quintana opens eyes with 'career-altering' performance

MILWAUKEE -- Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon isn’t yet willing to discuss a potential playoff rotation, but that might be because his starting staff is upside down at the moment and not the fact that the Cubs haven’t yet clinched their division.

Maddon's Nos. 3 and 4 starters from a few weeks ago are looking more like his Nos. 1 and 2 after one of the finer outings of the year on Sunday: a complete-game 5-0 shutout by lefty Jose Quintana over the Milwaukee Brewers.

It was an eye-opening performance by the Cubs' big midseason acquisition.

“Games like that can be career-altering for a pitcher,” Maddon said. “When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road, under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior [confidence].”

Quintana was fantastic, striking out 10 over the course of 116 pitches. He gave up just three hits and one walk.

“Q is a special kid,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. “He’s ready every single day, even when he’s not pitching. Today was one of the biggest days of his career, I think. He executed everything he wanted to.”

Quintana came inside to righties, dipped balls below the knees against lefties and kept the Brewers off balance on a hot afternoon at Miller Park. The win reduced the Cubs’ magic number to win the National League Central to two, while giving Maddon something to think about when he does set up his postseason rotation.

“Get to the playoffs and then you have to account for who’s pitching well, then who you’re playing against, then how do your skills match up against that group,” Maddon said.

The Cubs are on a collision course with the Washington Nationals, who feature lefties Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy among a slew of good offensive talent. In reality, Quintana always had a spot in the playoff rotation, but until recently, his game wasn’t as sharp. He adjusted to how the Cubs go about their game plan. Now he is thriving. Over his first seven starts since being acquired from the White Sox, Quintana had an ERA of 5.31. Over his past five starts, including Sunday’s masterpiece, he has a 2.14 mark.

“I was so happy to get this last game of the series,” Quintana said. “This was a huge series. I just tried to save my bullpen [because of] the last three days. ... When I got to the bottom of the eighth, Joe gave me the confidence to go back out there.”

He looked just as strong in the ninth inning as he did in the first. It led to a round of postgame big hugs on the field and in the locker room.

“Today was our day,” Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “Q was on from the start to the finish. ... He didn’t let up. He didn’t seem tired, and he was on point.”

Quintana often has said he has been wanting to experience the playoffs, and he’s about to get the chance. The Cubs have to take care of some business in St. Louis over the next few days, then Maddon finally can discuss where Quintana and his other pitchers fit for the postseason.

In Quintana’s estimation, getting the complete-game win was about as exciting as striking out 200 batters, which he accomplished on Sunday for the first time in his career.

“I don’t have words to explain that,” Quintana said with a big smile. “It’s special. It’s really good when you get punches [strikeouts]. I’m happy for me to get that for the first time.”

So are the Cubs.