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Cardinals answer to Max-Q? Lefty Jose Quintana strengthens bid to be October factor

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Cardinals Brewers Baseball

Cardinals starting pitcher Jose Quintana throws during the first inning of a game against the Brewers on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Milwaukee.

MILWAUKEE — No matter how far away from the postseason he felt while on waivers one August, as a free agent the next November, or as a Pirate this past July, Jose Quintana knew there was one surefire way to get closer to October.

There’s a type of pitching that’s always in demand.

“I know I’m going to be a part of a trade, (so) I just want to show that I’ve been pitching well ... and maybe play for a contender and play in October,” Quintana said. “If I’m pitching good maybe I get that chance.”

He’s earned it, and the Cardinals are set to give it.

With his 11th consecutive superb outing since coming to the Cardinals via trade, Quintana positioned himself for a prominent role in the playoff rotation. The lefty allowed one run and struck out seven in five innings Wednesday night against Milwaukee in a 5-1 loss at American Family Field. Having clinched the National League Central division title Tuesday night, the Cardinals had nothing to play for in the standings Wednesday.

Quintana had plenty to pitch for.

The Cardinals will set their postseason rotation based somewhat on the opponent, and with their victory Wednesday, the Brewers inched closer to a rematch. Milwaukee trails the Phillies by a half game for the final wild-card berth. Philadelphia has the tiebreak. The third wild-card team will travel to St. Louis for the first round of the playoffs and a best-of-three series played entirely at Busch Stadium. In their two-game series against Milwaukee this week, the Cardinals may have started the two pitchers, Miles Mikolas and Quintana, who will get games 1 and 2 of the first round. Combined that duo allowed two runs in 11 innings and struck out 16.

“I just wanted to come out here and give my best stuff and show why we’re a playoff team and show why I’m a playoff pitcher,” Mikolas said during the team’s clinching celebration late Tuesday night. “Want to close out the season strong and show everyone that we are a strong playoff team and that other teams have to watch out for us.”

Quintana said he has one more regular-season start — in Pittsburgh next week — before plunging into the postseason. He has yet to allow more than two earned runs in any of his 11 starts for the Cardinals, and his ERA for September is 0.89 in 30⅓ innings. The Cardinals had not lost a Quintana start in a month until Wednesday. There is one scenario where he pitches Game 2 of the wild-card series, though the Cardinals have not committed to that.

If the opponent is the Brewers, it seems obvious.

Milwaukee has struggled this season against lefties and the Cardinals have two lefty options to start, Jordan Montgomery and Quintana. Former MVP Christian Yelich did not start Wednesday against Quintana and is 7 for 32 (.218) with eight strikeouts against the lefty, and former Cardinal Kolten Wong is 1 for 14 (.071) with two strikeouts vs. Quintana. The Brewers’ roster has 126 plate appearances against Quintana, but familiarity hardly breeds success. The Brewers, as a group, have a .311 on-base percentage against him.

“Any time you play a division team, especially in the playoffs, you have so many at-bats, so many pitches against that team that it’s a battle of adjusting,” catcher Andrew Knizner said. “That’s the name of the game. That’s baseball. You play 162 games and you’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to be mentally aware to see what’s going on and get game reads.”

Knizner, who caught and homered in both games of the series at Milwaukee, said there was no plan to hide an approach or pocket a specific pitch against the Brewers because the same starters, Mikolas and Quintana, could see the same team in the playoffs.

Why save when they can learn?

Why wait to see if something is effective when they can find out before it counts?

“We look at the report. We formulate a game plan,” Knizner said. “We pitch to the game plan. If it changes by the next time we play, then we adapt and change. Now we have more intel. We went into a game with how to pitch them. Some things worked. Some things didn’t. Next time we play them, we have a baseline we can go off of.”

Since coming to the Cardinals, Quintana has improved with almost every start. He has utilized a greater mix of his pitches than he did before the trade, and he’s become more confident with both his sinker and his curveball. The greater mix of better pitches has helped him increase the number of strikeouts, too. With seven Wednesday, Quintana has 19 in his previous 19⅔ innings pitched.

The Brewers took a 1-0 lead on the Cardinals in the third inning when Hunter Renfroe pegged Quintana for an RBI single. But earlier in that inning and later in the game, in the fifth inning, he minimized or neutralized the Brewers’ threat with a strikeout. In back-to-back at-bats against Willy Adames, Quintana elevated his fastball to get a strikeout.

“I know I’m not a power pitcher,” Quintana said. “That’s all I’m thinking every time — get swings, get ahead in the count, and get the quick outs as far as I can.”

Said Knizner: “One thing I love about Q is in the big spots, with guys on base, he gets better. And that’s a really good quality to have especially this time of year, going into the postseason.”

Opposite Quintana on Wednesday, Brewers right-hander Brandon Woodruff struck out 10 for the fourth consecutive start and held the Cardinals scoreless through his six innings. He and reigning Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes are likely to get the first two starts for the Brewers in a best-of-three playoff series. Neither has an ERA greater than 3.14. If Philadelphia fends off the Brewers and draws that sixth seed into the playoffs, then the Cardinals could face a different pair of aces, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, with Noah “Thor” Syndergaard lurking as the lightning to change any playoff series.

However the rotation rolls out in the final six games of the regular season, Mikolas and Quintana are positioned to be part of the Cardinals’ plans for that first round and could be the team’s starters in games 1 and 2, opposite some of the game’s best.

That decision is now where Quintana aimed to be.

Close to the playoffs.

“We play baseball for this moment,” Quintana said. “I think October is the perfect time to show everything we have in the tank. It’s a great opportunity to win.”

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols and more Cardinals to watch for this weekend. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to Cairo, Ill., native Christopher Jackson from “Hamilton”! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

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