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Castro helps Cubs walk off vs. Padres: A trend in the making?

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Castro helps Cubs walk off vs. Padres: A trend in the making?

After blowing a four-run lead in the top of the ninth, it was understandable if some fans asked themselves, “These are the new Cubs?”

The bullpen debacle in Saturday’s game against the visiting San Diego Padres was all too reminiscent of Cubs teams past.

But that wasn’t the end of things. No, the Cubs recovered and got a walk-off single from Starlin Castro in the bottom of the 11th to send them to win No. 6 on the season, a 7-6, extra-inning victory at Wrigley Field.

It’s the kind of win that might just end up defining the “new Cubs.”

“It’s really good. That’s one of the games that makes us feel better,” Castro said after his heroics. “Last year or the year before, we’d lose a lot of games like that. We played a lot of extra-inning games, and we’d lose them. We continued to fight nine innings. If we play more than nine, we keep fighting. We’re going to try to win the game.”

[MORE CUBS: After strong debut at third, where do Cubs see Bryant long term?]

All Castro needed to do was find the outfield grass, as the bases were full of Cubs with just one out and the Padres infield playing in. Anthony Rizzo walked with one out, and Kris Bryant followed by hustling out an infield single. David Ross walked on four pitches ahead of Castro’s game-winner off Padres closer Craig Kimbrel. Game over.

It’s not the first time these Cubs have won in dramatic fashion, either.

There was Dexter Fowler’s eighth-inning go-ahead homer in Colorado. There was Jorge Soler’s game-tying homer in the eighth inning to open this homestead against the Reds, a game later won on Arismendy Alcantara’s walk-off single in the 10th.

Winning games late. It might just be a trend in the making for the Cubs.

“(It’s good for the) confidence level,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “When you do that a few times, everybody feels comfortable that you’re going to come back and win the ballgame. Never panic, that’s what a winning team does. You’ve got to create that momentum, and you’ve got to believe that it can happen. When it happens a few times, you know it can happen. It’s not going to happen all the time, obviously, but you can believe that it can happen any time. And that’s what we’re doing right now. We know we can come back, we know we can win the game. You just never give up, and we battle all the way.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs, Kris Bryant say there’s no bad blood after service-time issue]

Of course, the game wouldn’t have even needed rescuing from Castro if not for the bullpen’s ninth-inning blunder. San Diego opened the ninth with four straight hits off relievers Phil Coke and Hector Rondon, two of those scoring runs. An RBI groundout made it a one-run game, and with the Padres down to their last strike, pinch hitter Yangervis Solarte pushed a hit into right field to tie the game at 6.

It was the second straight day of trouble for a bullpen that’s been very reliable early on. Brian Schlitter gave up a game-winning three-run homer to Wil Myers in Friday’s game.

But the Cubs didn’t wither after that devastating blow. Credit the new manager for keeping the Cubs alive.

“I normally just keep going up and down the dugout, just yelling crazy stuff. I’m just that guy,” Maddon said. “I used to play quarterback, and I was a catcher. And I’ve been around some really insane coaches. The biggest thing you’ve got to get across at that point is: ‘It’s over with, we got out of it, now let’s move forward and let’s win this thing.’ And that can be an even bigger morale booster. And we did it.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

Maddon likes this late-game trend, too, realizing the benefits it can have down the line.

“Whenever you win late and then you know you can win late, that matters a lot. When teams don’t quit, when they play nine innings hard every night, that matters,” he said. “We played nine innings hard yesterday, we almost had a chance to get something done late again. We got something done late in Colorado. We’ve gotten something done late often to this point. That to me is very pertinent in regards to us having a successful season, and to establish it early is very good.”

Before the nightmare ninth, the Cubs had put together eight pretty great innings of baseball. After starter Kyle Hendricks yielded a two-run homer in the first, he set down 17 of the last 18 hitters he faced over six innings of work. That allowed a Cubs comeback. Bryant bounced back from his 0-for-4, three-strikeout debut with a 2-for-3, three-walk day, including his first major league hit: a broken-bat bloop single to center that tied the game at 2 in the fifth. Montero blasted a pair of homers, one to put the Cubs ahead in the sixth and another to grow that lead to four in the seventh.

But the biggest play, at the end of the day, was Castro’s single, the one that delivered a victory and exemplified what kind of team this could be this season.

“It’s really good, it’s really good. We tried to win that game. We tried to make it a 1-1 series, and we can win tomorrow and we can win the series,” Castro said. “They tied the game in the ninth, but we keep fighting to try to get it. And in the end, we did.”

Yu Darvish finally has his first win at Wrigley

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USA TODAY

Yu Darvish finally has his first win at Wrigley

Yu Darvish blew a 98 mph fastball by Yasiel Puig, pumped his fist emphatically twice and let out a primal yell as he walked off the mound while 37,260 fans at Wrigley Field backed him up with maybe the loudest "YUUUU!!!" chant of the season.

It was the final pitch he threw on the afternoon as he completely dismantled the Reds lineup in a 4-2 Cubs victory.

Since the All-Star Break, Darvish leads Major League Baseball in ERA — he hasn't allowed a run in 12 innings while striking out 15 and giving up only 4 hits and a walk. 

Oh yeah, and he finally picked up his first Wrigley Field win in a Cubs uniform...in his 28th start.

In both outings to start the second half, he took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and they're also the only two scoreless starts he has as a member of the Cubs (he gave up 0 earned run April 27 last year against the Brewers, but was charged with an unearned run).

The Cubs are now 5-1 since the All-Star Break and will carry a 2.5-game lead in the division into action Friday when the San Diego Padres come into town.

Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

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Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

Just a few weeks after utilizing a six-man rotaiton, the Cubs are considering dropping back to a four-man starting staff for a bit.

Cole Hamels threw a bullpen Wednesday morning at Wrigley Field and reportedly felt great, but he's still at least a week or so away from returning to the Cubs rotation.

Couple that with the four days off for the All-Star Break last week and regular off-days coming up (three more still in July), the Cubs don't have an actual *need* for a fifth starter more than once between now and Aug. 3, as their four mainstays will be able to go on regular rest.

"We're gonna discuss that internally — things we want to do," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "We have the ability to go with a four-man [rotation] for an extended period of time with those off-days."

Hottovy acknowledged a four-man rotation is the Cubs' preference rather than keep Alec Mills in the rotation long-term, but there are many factors to consider.

"Our guys are feeling good, so we don't want to push the envelope with all these off-days and [tell the pitchers], 'you're still gonna be on a five-day rotation,'" Hottovy said. "So we gotta all talk and communicate about how guys are feeling and make that decision."

The Cubs have been cautious with their pitchers coming out of the break, too, given they've all been thrown off their normal rhythms and routines. It's also worth noting that Kyle Hendricks is still working his way back up to full strength after a shoulder injury cost him much of June.

When the Cubs opted to go with a six-man rotation last month, the whole idea was to rest these guys and make sure they're feeling fresh for the second half and down the stretch. The team had a pretty brutal stretch — 52 games in 54 days — before the All-Star Break.

But if everything continues to progress with Hamels and his oblique injury, the Cubs may not need a four-man rotation for long, even if they opt to go that route. 

After Wednesday's bullpen, the Cubs are going to give Hamels a couple days to recover and will plan another bullpen for this weekend (likely Saturday). Just like with Hendricks' recovery, the first bullpen is more for a gauge to see where the guy is at physically and then the second one will be more of a normal routine and getting back into rhythm mechanically, etc.

Following that weekend bullpen, the Cubs don't know yet whether they're going to have Hamels throw a simulated game or go on a rehab assignment as the next step. They'll evaluate all that this weekend and thanks to the regular time off coming up, they know they don't have to push it.

"If he feels good, we also don't want to slow-play Cole Hamels," Hottovy said. "He's a guy we want in the rotation."

The Cubs are off Thursday but then play six straight games and they will need a fifth starter for that stretch (next Tuesday in San Francisco).

As of right now, it sure looks like that guy could be Mills, who rebounded nicely after a rough first inning during Tuesday night's victory. 

Mills — a 27-year-old right-hander — has only pitched 11 career games in the big leagues, but he's been a nice depth option for the Cubs the last couple years. Including Tuesday night, he has a 4.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 24 big-league innings for the Cubs the last two seasons.

"I have a lot of confidence [in him]," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's definitely a big-league caliber pitcher. I don't think he's a 4-A guy; I think he's more than that. He just needs opportunity."

Both Maddon and Hottovy mentioned Mills' last start with the Cubs last August when he gave up a first-inning grand slam to the Mets before settling in to throw 4+ innings of solid ball from there.

Tuesday night, Mills got two quick outs (thanks in large part to Albert Almora Jr.'s defense) and then served up a solo homer to Eugenio Suarez, who absolutely kills the Cubs. From there, it was back-to-back hit batters and then a groundball basehit that went right to where third baseman Kris Bryant would've been standing had he not broke for the bag to cover on a steal attempt.

Mills was inches away from getting out of the first inning with only 1 run allowed, but he also only eventually escaped the jam when Almora threw a runner out at home plate on a double off the wall — or else there could've been even more damage.

After that, Mills held the Reds scoreless for the next five innings to notch the first quality start of his career.

"He regrouped well," Hottovy said. "Millsy's a pro. The guy's been mostly a minor-league guy, but I still consider him kind of one of those veteran guys. He's smart, he's poised. He comes in after that inning and he's like, 'Yeah, I thought I did this well, I didn't do this well.' And then we talked through it and he's able to wipe it clean and then reset. 

"It was such a good job by him to be able to do that with a good hitting team — to come back and set the tone. It's easy to have that inning and then kinda let things keep escalating. He was able to go right back down the next inning and shut 'em down and that really set the tone."