BALTIMORE — Willson Contreras — a major leaguer all of 13 months — seemingly lacks the big-picture perspective to distill just what the Chicago Cubs did to start the second half. 

Then again, it was audacious youth that largely drove the Cubs to a World Series championship in 2016. So maybe we should heed the words of their 25-year-old catcher after Chicago came into Camden Yards flush with a new ace, outscored the Baltimore Orioles by 16 runs and played what manager Joe Maddon said was by far their finest series of this season.

“I think we are back,” Contreras said after the Cubs completed their three-game throttling with an 8-0 victory Sunday. “Back to where we were last year. I hope we can be like this for a lot of games.” 

Hold up. A club that’s never been more than four games over .500, that gave up as many runs as it scored in the first half, that toted a 4.46 club ERA into Baltimore and that remains 4 ½ games behind the Milwaukee Brewers — they’re suddenly on the same level as last year’s 103-win, jinx-killing juggernaut? 

Well, the Cubs did get much better even as they tanned and rested for four days over the All-Star break. Club president Theo Epstein delivered them another ace in lefty Jose Quintana — a blockbuster deal with the crosstown White Sox that came with more than a subtle kick in the rear urging the boys to kick it into gear. 

The message, it seems, was received. 

On Sunday, Quintana took the ball for the first time as a Cub and validated Epstein’s gamble: Seven shutout innings, just three hits allowed and 12 strikeouts — tying a franchise record for a pitcher in his debut.

“I’m really happy to be here,” Quintana said with the relief of a man transported from last place in the AL Central and a life of perpetually poor run support.

Yet, he’s probably not as happy as his new teammates. 

Had the Cubs played much worse in the first half, Epstein and Co. might have had to ponder selling assets, rather than adding. Instead, they plucked the gem of this deadline before the market even opened. Quintana has pitched into at least the seventh inning in 51% of his starts since 2015. He’s pitched between 200 and 208 innings the past four seasons, precisely the reliable salve the Cubs rotation needed. 

And he’s under club control at between $8.5 million and $10.5 million per year potentially through 2020. 

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It’s impossible to quantify if the Cubs’ enhanced self-esteem this weekend was more the intangible boost from the front office, or facing Baltimore’s major league-worst pitching staff. 

 It’s not surprising which narrative the Cubs prefer.

“It gives us that extra confidence,” says reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant, who hit his 19th homer among three hits Sunday. “We have a lot of the same core that we had last year, and we won the whole thing. To add him for an extra three years, too — I think it’s a great move.

“I think our offense came alive here. Obviously, Jose did an unbelievable job. Today was a great day for us feeling good about ourselves.”

In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a Cub who isn’t trending upward. 

2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta has a 1.86 ERA in his last three starts, although his strikeout rate remains disconcerting. Postseason hero Kyle Schwarber has six hits in 18 at-bats since returning from his minor league demotion. 

Jason Heyward, who’s struggled mightily at the plate since signing a $184 million contract before the 2016 season, had six hits and a homer this weekend in Baltimore, his .265 average his highest as a Cub.

“He’s on everything right now,” says Maddon.

Then, there is Contreras. He banged out a career-best four hits on Sunday, continuing an 18-for-42 tear, and looked like he’d worked with Quintana for ages. His success only deepens Maddon’s dilemma — he’d love to play him every day.

Contreras would love that, as well. But catchers need rest, so he’ll have to settle for banging his way well into the Cubs’ core. 

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team now,” he said. 

Contreras’ leadoff double in the second was followed by Schwarber and Ian Happ doubles and a two-run single from Heyward. Quintana was staked to a 4-0 lead, almost uncharted territory: His record with the White Sox was just 50-54, despite a career 3.51 ERA. 

So, he dominated, spiking his curveball for swinging strikeouts early in the game, leaning on his fastball and changeup late. He finished with a flourish, striking out Mark Trumbo looking and inducing a double-play grounder from Chris Davis to end the seventh, greeted with a high-five from Maddon upon reaching the dugout. 

“He knew he had done well,” says Maddon. “He’s a low-key fellow, but his method is outstanding. 

“From his perspective, coming over from the White Sox to the Cubs in the middle of the season, there’s got to be something going on in there. And he handled it extremely well.” 

What happened next was nearly as important to these 46-45, 2017 Cubs. Bryant and Anthony Rizzo ripped two-run homers in the sixth and ninth. The high-leverage relievers got a day off. 

And a club that was merely even in run differential in the first half was suddenly +16 and more closely resembling the club that spanked opponents by a whopping 252 runs in 2016.

“Having some big wins — some less stressful baseball — I feel like we did that a lot last year, considering our run differential,” says Bryant. “If we win under less stressful conditions, it makes it easier in here. We’re not pulling out our hair in here every single night with a one-run game.”

Says Maddon: “I really believe that if we play with that energy, we’ll win a lot of games in the second half. It’s just how we feel about ourselves.” 

Follow Gabe Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques.

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