Playoff audition? What a bad game in Milwaukee means for Cubs and Jason Hammel

Playoff audition? What a bad game in Milwaukee means for Cubs and Jason Hammel

MILWAUKEE — This sure looked like Joe Maddon proving a point, leaving Jason Hammel out there in the middle of Miller Park, the subtext screaming: You want to pitch deep into games? OK, fine, here’s your chance.

Maddon didn’t exactly manage this one like the Cubs were playing Game 7 of the World Series, refusing to give Hammel the quick hook during Tuesday night’s 12-5 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Of course, Maddon had all the answers during his postgame press conference, patiently giving detailed explanations after Hammel surrendered six hits and a walk to the first seven Brewers he faced. Without any feel for his slider, Hammel gave up a leadoff homer to Jonathan Villar, spiked two wild pitches and didn’t get his first out until Martin Maldonado’s sacrifice fly gave Milwaukee a 5-1 lead in the first inning.

That usually gets Maddon’s mind racing, especially with an expanded September bullpen and his awkward history with Hammel, which dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays. Hammel (14-8, 3.50 ERA) is no longer that unproven pitcher, now a respected veteran teammate and a major reason why the Cubs are on the verge of going back to the playoffs for the second straight year.

But Hammel didn’t have it against the rebuilding Brewers (61-77), giving up at least nine runs for the third time this season, and he might not have a spot on the postseason roster, depending on how everything shakes out across the next month.

“I’m not trying to pitch for anything,” Hammel said. “That’s a decision that comes at the end of the season. We got plenty of capable guys here that can pitch in big games. Obviously, you want to be a part of that. But I’m not trying to pitch for a chance to pitch in the postseason.”

“No, not at all,” Maddon said, this isn’t an audition for October, before listening to the follow-up question and not automatically ruling out the idea of putting Hammel in the bullpen to see what he could do there.

“I haven’t even thought about that,” Maddon said. “Absolutely, you could do that, no question, if you chose to look at it that way. But for right now, we haven’t even talked about that.”

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Maddon saw enough on Aug. 27 at Dodger Stadium that he pulled Hammel after only 39 pitches, which led to a meeting in the manager’s office and left the pitcher still seething by the time reporters walked over to his locker.

This time, Maddon kept Hammel out there with two outs in the sixth inning, when Ryan Braun hammered a 92-mph fastball into the picnic area beyond the right-field fence for a two-out, three-run homer that made it a 9-2 game.

The reasoning: Milwaukee presents “entirely different” than a Los Angeles lineup stacked with left-handed hitters, making lefty swingmen Travis Wood and Rob Zastryzny less appealing. Hammel had been 10-1 with a 2.50 ERA in 14 previous career starts against the Brewers. Plus, Maddon wanted to rest certain relievers and not burn out his bullpen.

If this seemed like Maddon thinking big picture and not pressing quite as hard and not going all-out to win that night ...

“There was nothing to press with,” Maddon said. “There was nowhere to go with the full-court press. It was a great lineup for him, and he’s done really well against the Brewers. He had a bad first inning, and he settled in. And then the homer makes it look really bad at the end.”

Take away those three starts with at least nine runs — and that early exit at Dodger Stadium — and Hammel would have a 2.11 ERA that would rank second in the majors behind teammate Kyle Hendricks.

“The (tale) of the tape for me this year is when I’m bad, I’m really bad,” Hammel said. “The overall body of work is really good, so I’m not going to beat myself up.”

With a division lead over the St. Louis Cardinals that’s now 15 1/2 games — and a magic number to clinch the National League Central stuck at 10 — the Cubs can afford to rest the All-Star left side of their infield (like they did with Kris Bryant and Addison Russell), experiment with their pitching staff (Mike Montgomery will start Wednesday night in Milwaukee opposite Matt “I’ll Pitch on the Freaking Moon” Garza) and hold auditions for the playoffs, no matter what they say publicly.

“I didn’t really set the tone for us early, so this one’s on me,” Hammel said. “It obviously doesn’t sit well, but we’re fortunate to have a very comfortable lead right now. Just brush this one off and move on.”

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


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


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: