NEW YORK -- It had been 286 days since José Quintana last pitched in a competitive game, when he worked into the sixth inning in Game 1 of the 2022 National League Wild Card Series against the Phillies as a member of the Cardinals.
It had been 137 days since his last appearance against Major League hitters, when he tossed an inning against St. Louis on March 5, before he suffered a stress fracture in his left rib cage that changed his life.
On Thursday afternoon, Quintana made his return to the Majors after undergoing bone graft surgery to repair the stress fracture and remove a benign lesion that was discovered on his rib. That first pitch, a 90.4 mph fastball that Andrew Benintendi fouled back for strike one, was something Quintana had marked on his calendar for months.
"It felt great out there,” said Quintana, who was the losing pitcher as the Mets were denied a three-game sweep of the White Sox in a 6-2 loss at Citi Field.
“There were really a lot of emotions around me and my debut. I was so excited to make it here at home -- it was great. Every inning, it felt better and better.”
Quintana -- who signed a two-year, $26 million contract to be the Mets’ fourth starter behind aces Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, and All-Star Kodai Senga -- had a varied 2023 debut.
Prior to the series-finale loss, manager Buck Showalter didn’t pile a heap of expectations upon the veteran lefty.
“Hopefully, he’s healthy. You know he’s going to show up and compete,” Showalter said. “He comes with a real reputation of professionalism and competitiveness. … This is the first start in a long time for this guy. I mean, it’s been a long road.”
Quintana tossed five innings, giving up two runs on six hits to go with no walks and three strikeouts.
After retiring Benintendi on a flyout to left field to open the first, Quintana ran into a bit of bad luck and gave up three consecutive hits (two of which had an exit velocity of less than 78 mph, according to Statcast).
With a run in and two runners on, Quintana tightroped out of trouble, finishing off Yasmani Grandal with a curveball in the dirt to end the inning.
“[It was] very encouraging, with those two flares in the first inning -- it's part of baseball,” said Showalter, speaking on what he liked about Quintana’s Mets debut. “But I know talking to him in the dugout, he felt better and better as the game went on.”
Quintana noted he felt as though he had a greater sense of command as the start progressed. Of his 77 pitches, 53 were thrown for strikes, with a healthy dosage of each of his four pitches on display (sinker, four-seam fastball, slider, changeup).
And after the first inning, Quintana faced no more than four batters in each of his remaining innings, while he induced soft contact and ended the last four frames with a ground ball.
That ability to settle in, with the emotions of returning to the mound swirling around him, impressed Showalter.
“Keep in mind, this guy hasn’t pitched in a Major League game since last [October]." Showalter said. “Big day for him to get back out there, and for us. I thought he handled himself well. …
“I would have taken that outing. He showed all the things he’s good at -- command of the fastball and attacking hitters.”
Quintana’s first regular-season game in a Mets uniform wasn’t perfect and was full of little moments of challenge, but the signs of what his veteran presence could provide were there.
“I think mostly timing on that first start … with the new rules,” Quintana said about the biggest challenge. “But we really focused on the game and the plan, Omar [Narváez] called a really good game for me, and I feel great with that.”
Quintana's dependability, a quality that a fourth-place Mets team has been angling for the entire season, should be a welcome addition to the rotation as New York attempts to claw its way back into the NL Wild Card race.
The 34-year-old pitcher believes in the team’s chances of making a late-season run.
“I heard the fans, playing my first game as a Met,” Quintana said. “We went for the sweep, which we haven’t seen too many this year. We really wanted this game. … But we’ll be ready for the next one.”