Cubs rotation finally delivering on its design to dominate

CHICAGO -- When the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, breaking a title drought for the ages, they did it on the backs of a dynamic starting rotation.

Yes, Kris Bryant was the MVP, and David Ross was on the most fun farewell tour of all time, and Anthony Rizzo drove in 109 runs, and Aroldis Chapman was throwing 103 mph out of the bullpen. But it was a rotation that sported a 2.96 regular-season ERA -- 64 points better than that of any other team in the majors -- that allowed Chicago to keep its pedal to the metal from March to November.

It seems like just last night that the Cubs celebrated that championship, but do you know how many members of that club’s core rotation are still around? Two: Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester. In 2018, Chicago is trying to get back to that pinnacle with three-fifths of a turned-over rotation. Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and John Lackey are out. Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish are in.

For this week at least, that seems like a good plan.

“I felt good,” Quintana said Saturday after his best outing of the season. “My stuff was really good. I’m happy we are winning. Tomorrow, we will try to keep going.”

Quintana held the Milwaukee Brewers scoreless on two hits over seven innings of a 3-0 Cubs victory. Chicago has won the first three games of this series against its National League Central foe and has held Milwaukee to a grand total of two runs in the process. Only one of those runs was allowed by a starter, but it was unearned.

Finally, the starters are complementing a lineup and bullpen that were doing the heavy lifting in the early going.

“You have to be able to win games like that,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We had not been able to early on. We just weren’t pitching well enough to do that. But now we are.”

Chicago’s rotation has posted five consecutive quality starts, and the Cubs have now won five of six. It’s only one turn through the rotation, but it has looked very 2016-like:

• April 24: Chatwood, one run in six innings (win)

• April 25: Lester, three runs in seven innings (loss)

• April 26: Hendricks, zero runs in seven innings (win)

• April 27: Darvish, one unearned run in six innings (win)

• April 28: Quintana, zero runs in seven innings (win)

Five of Chicago’s 12 quality starts this season have come in the Cubs’ past five games. Quintana’s outing was the best by a Cubs starter all season. His game score of 79 topped Hendricks’ 74 in the series opener as the best by a Cubs starter in 2018.

“I thought he had a really good fastball,” Maddon said of Quintana. “I thought his fastball was better, I thought his two-seamer was better. His curveball was sharp. He had everything going on today.”

To put numbers to the skipper’s observation: Quintana’s average fastball velocity Saturday (91.2 mph) was just off his season high, and he threw his fastest pitch of the season, at 93.2 mph.

In other good news for the Cubs, Bryant was back in the lineup. He missed four games after being hit in the head by a pitch on Sunday in Colorado. He didn’t get a hit, but he seemed pleased to get back to his normal routine.

“It was nice to be back out there,” Bryant said. “It was just another ballgame. I felt really normal. It’s really weird: You take four games off, you feel like you’re a little behind.”

Really, it was the same old, same old for Quintana when it comes to facing the Brewers. Quintana’s game score Saturday was tied for the 10th-best of his 188 career starts. His best career game score (90) came Sept. 24, 2017, when he shut out the Brewers on three hits. Why does he get the best of Milwaukee?

“I don’t know,” Quintana said. “A couple of people have told me that. I just try to focus on every single pitch.”

In six career starts against Milwaukee, Quintana has averaged a 74 game score, better than against any other opponent by a mile. His 65.5 average against the Dodgers ranks second. Overall, Quintana’s career average game score is 54.1, so you'd better believe he likes it when the Brewers are in town.

“I’m going to keep on the same page,” Quintana said. “I’m going to keep trying to throw the ball well, no matter who is the other team.”

Before this week, the Cubs’ rotation was languishing in a sea of question marks. Quintana’s ERA entering Saturday’s game was 7.78, with his only effective outing coming April 8 against -- you guessed it -- the Brewers. Overall, before this flurry of quality starts, Chicago’s rotation ERA (5.27) ranked an unsightly 25th in the majors.

After Quintana’s gem, that ranking has climbed to 16th. No, it isn't 2016 redux just yet. But you can finally see where team architects Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer hoped this configuration would lead.

“Q was great today, lights-out,” Bryant said. “He definitely needed that. I expect a lot of that out of him this season.”