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Jason Hammel injury shows how much Cubs need more pitching

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Jason Hammel injury shows how much Cubs need more pitching

The Cubs set off alarm bells on Twitter by taking Jason Hammel out of Wednesday’s game at Wrigley Field.

It took about five minutes between the sight of Clayton Richard warming up against the St. Louis Cardinals and a team spokesman announcing over the press-box microphone that Hammel had left the game with left hamstring tightness.

Hammel needed 12 pitches to get through a 1-2-3 first inning against St. Louis, but that would be it on a cool, rainy night. It became another reminder the Cubs will need at least one more quality starter if they plan to make it through the 162-game marathon and play deep into October.

“Very frustrating,” Hammel said after a 6-5 loss that showed why the Cardinals are the best team in baseball. The Cubs had been one strike away from winning it when Pedro Strop gave up Jhonny Peralta’s two-run homer in the ninth inning, making the crowd of 37,993 suddenly very quiet.

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The Cubs won’t know the extent of the injury until Hammel gets an MRI on Thursday — he said he had “no idea” if this would be a disabled-list situation.

“Hopefully, we’ll find out some good news,” Hammel said. “Hopefully, it’s just a strain or something like that and easily treatable. I guess the silver lining is the All-Star break is probably the best time for it to happen.”

Hammel said he felt a “real sharp pain in the back of the knee” as his front leg landed after throwing his second pitch.

Around the same time, the Oakland A’s pulled Scott Kazmir from his start at Yankee Stadium — leading to Hug Watch speculation on social media — before describing it as left triceps tightness.

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The A’s are one of several underperforming teams trying to figure out which way to turn at the July 31 trade deadline. Kazmir — who will hit the free-agent market after this season — began the day with a 2.65 ERA and pitched in the All-Star Game last year.

This is supposed to be a sellers’ market with the second wild card and so many teams stuck in the middle. Instead of a three-month rental, the Cubs would prefer a pitcher with the potential to help next year and maybe beyond. (Who wouldn’t?)

But there are legitimate questions about how much financial flexibility Theo Epstein’s front office will have. The Cubs (46-38) have to be pragmatic when they already trail the Cardinals (55-30) by 8 1/2 games in the division and could be looking at a one-game playoff anyway — if the pitching holds up.

Hammel doesn’t have the name recognition or Q rating that helps influence the All-Star voting, but he’s been extremely reliable and effective in this environment, the type of player the Cubs can’t afford to lose now.

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Hammel began the day at 5-4 with a 2.89 ERA and 104 strikeouts against 18 walks in 102 2/3 innings. He made it a priority to return to Chicago after last summer’s Jeff Samardzija/Addison Russell trade with Oakland, agreeing to a deal that guaranteed two years and $20 million with a club option for 2017.

Overshadowed by sign-and-flip rumors — and higher-profile teammates — Hammel had quietly put together two half-seasons in a Cub uniform that look like top-of-the-rotation stuff: 13-9, 2.94 ERA, 208 strikeouts against 41 walks through 211-plus innings.

Before Tuesday’s doubleheader sweep of the Cardinals — which featured All-Star snub Jake Arrieta and Triple-A Iowa call-up Dallas Beeler — manager Joe Maddon talked about the hunt for pitching.

“I know we’re always on the lookout to improve that,” Maddon said. “Absolutely, it could make a difference. There’s no question it could make a difference. But I don’t anticipate that happening, so I work from the premise that it’s going to look like this.”

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The Cubs understood they needed more pitching even before No. 5 starter Tsuyoshi Wada went on the disabled list last month. They already gave a Busch Stadium start to Donn Roach. They grabbed Richard from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a cash deal last week, taking advantage of a clause in his minor-league contract and getting him out of Triple-A.

Richard beat the Miami Marlins in his Fourth of July start, but in an emergency situation the lefty gave up four runs on seven hits and three walks in three innings against the Cardinals.

“Everybody needs more pitching,” Maddon said. “It’s something you’re always seeking. (But with) starting pitching, (it’s) really hard to get those six, seven-plus guys that you actually like.

“Listen, I’m not going to worry about it yet. We’ll find out exactly what’s going on with ‘Hammer,’ then we’ll take it from there.”

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The Cubs have Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Arrieta lined up for the White Sox this weekend at Wrigley Field before scattering for the All-Star break.

Ideally, the Cubs would probably like Hendricks as their fifth starter, not the No. 3 guy in a playoff push, which seems more credible after splitting this series with the Cardinals.

“I don’t think we needed to prove it to ourselves,” Hammel said. “We already believed that. Four games in three days against a No. 1 team — we played them toe-to-toe the whole way. We should have won tonight. They kind of stole one there at the end.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: