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Quintana changes things up to give Cubs the top starter they traded for

CHICAGO -- If you're into labels, then you might know that one of the downsides of the Chicago Cubs rotation going into the season was that they didn't have a true No.1 pitcher -- at least not in the vein of a Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom.

But they also don't have a true No.5. Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana would all be no worse than third starters in many rotations in baseball. That is the true strength of the Cubs' starting staff -- and it's starting to show up.

Quintana's third consecutive seven-inning outing, in a 7-2 Cubs win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday, completes a 10-game stretch for the starting staff in which they compiled a 1.39 ERA, easily the lowest in baseball for any team in the past 10 games. The surprise here is that it's the soft-spoken Quintana who has led the way. The knock on him in the past was that he was too passive, both in his demeanor and in his approach.

All that has changed in his past three outings. He has given up just two runs and walked three in 21 innings. Quintana's first-pitch strike percentage is up to 68.8 percent, more than 3 percentage points more than in his first 47 starts as a Cub. That sounds small, but it's not.

"I trust my stuff and the adjustments I'm making," Quintana said after the win. "It's in my mind to get ahead. That's the best chance we have to get the outs."

It seems simple, but it's always easier said than done. Perhaps Quintana is going through a mental metamorphosis, with the results starting to show in his performance. The Cubs paint a picture of a more engaged pitcher wanting to be better and do more.

"We had a conversation the other day," teammate Javier Baez said. "I asked him if the infield (defense) was part of his plan. Sometimes I feel like the pitcher and the catcher, their plan isn't including the infield. Everything is strikeouts ... I think playing a little more with the team when he's pitching is going to give him a lot of comfort."

Quintana recalled the conversation and took it to heart -- and to this game -- right away.

"Today I moved Javy more to the third base side for a few hitters," he said. "We have really good communication on defense."

The Cubs' brass sees a more interested pitcher as well. In the spring, Quintana reintroduced his changeup as a more prominent pitch in his mix, and that commitment has carried into the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he's throwing the off-speed pitch 12 percent of the time, up 4 points from previous years. Leaning on the change has given him a great three-pitch mix: fastball, curveball, changeup.

"He's pitching," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's absolutely pitching, whereas in the past I thought he would pretty much rely on his fastball. He's becoming a pitch-maker with all this stuff."

No one can quite put their finger on why there has been a change in Quintana. Perhaps he was fed up with underachieving, or maybe it's seeing one of the players he was traded for, ├╝ber-prospect Eloy Jimenez, in the majors that lit a fire under him. Or perhaps the Cubs' pitching management infrastructure -- led by game planner Mike Borzello and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy -- got through to him.

"Sometimes, even though you say this stuff to guys in the past, if they don't believe in it themselves, they're not going to do it," Maddon said. "When a guy is ready to try new things, he will."

The results have been outstanding. Admittedly, it's just three outings, and a skeptic might note that one came against the lowly Miami Marlins and two were against warm-weather teams hitting in cold temperatures.

But you have to start somewhere, and Quintana has now thrown his best three consecutive games as a Cub, and he has done it while Jon Lester has been on the shelf, giving it even more meaning. Quintana's latest gem pushed his team over .500 (11-10) for the first time since the Cubs were 1-0. He's on his game and lifting his team at the same time.

"I feel great," Quintana stated. "All my stuff is working really well."