Cubs feel every Jason Hammel start is a chance to win


Cubs feel every Jason Hammel start is a chance to win

Jason Hammel is on fire.

Hammel gets the ball Friday in the second game of this weekend's four-game set with the visiting Reds, and he brought in a recent string of success that's made him one of the best starting pitchers in the National League.

Entering Friday's game, his 2.76 ERA over his first 11 starts placed him in the top 10 in the NL among starters, and he ranked just outside the top 10 with 76 strikeouts.

And Hammel's been particularly strong of late, posting a 2.03 ERA and striking out 60 opposing hitters in his last eight starts, during which he's 4-1.

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It's all part of a campaign that could send the right-hander to Cincinnati as a part of this summer's All-Star Game.

But if he sounds like a surprise All-Star candidate to you, he doesn't to his teammates.

“He hasn’t surprised me at all," fellow Cubs starter Jake Arrieta said. "It’s kind of the Jason that I’ve seen in the past. We had him over here last year, and he had a tremendous run with us leading up to the trade to Oakland. I saw him have an extremely good year in 2012 in Baltimore. He made that transition from being a guy who struggled, a guy who went up and down, back and forth from starting to the bullpen to really transforming himself into an extremely durable, quality starter and a high-level starter for us. He’s extremely consistent. You know what you’re going to get when he toes the rubber. He’s going to pound the strike zone with all three of his pitches, he’s not going to walk many guys and he’s going to pitch deep into the game. And he’s been showing us exactly that thus far this year, and I expect nothing less from him.”

“Jason’s been my teammate for a while," outfielder Dexter Fowler said. "This is probably the best I’ve seen him pitch. He looks comfortable, and he’s executing his pitches. Everything’s going his way.”

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Hammel's excellence on the mound isn't just giving him his own eye-popping stats, it's also making life easier for his teammates.

Be that a daily expectation that Hammel will deliver or specifics of playing the field, Hammel's teammates love it when he takes the hill.

“I don't know if his performance specifically gives us added confidence, it’s knowing what you’re going to get from him every time he’s out there, and that gives us the feeling of, ‘OK, we’ve got a chance to win today.’ Every time he’s out there, we’ve got a good shot to win the game," Arrieta said. "And that’s kind of the reputation that he’s starting to develop over the past couple of years, and it’s a tribute to his ability to take that next step not only out there every fifth day but in between starts. Understanding scouting reports, refining his stuff in the bullpen and getting ready for the next lineup. And that’s what he does really well.”

“His pace of game is great, keeps the infield active. He’s a solid, solid pitcher for us," catcher David Ross said. "He’s been doing everything you could ask from the starter. He goes deep into games, saves our bullpen. There’s really not a whole lot of innings where you feel stressed out, no real bases-loaded, nobody-out situations. He keeps the game pretty much at bay and is really, really consistent. We enjoy when everybody’s on the mound around here, but for sure Jason’s been one of our most consistent starters.”

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Hammel's been striking out guys at a rapid pace this season, averaging nearly seven strikeouts a start. In his last six starts, he's struck out 49 batters. In his last four, he's struck out 35 batters. He sat down 11 Miami Marlins in the Cubs' win on June 1.

His teammates like it when he does that, too.

“It kind of gives us a day off," Fowler joked. "You don’t have to run for too many balls, it’s just him and the catcher.”

And though Hammel might be the guy (or one of the guys) representing the Cubs at the All-Star Game, he's got plenty of talented company in the Cubs rotation. Arrieta ranks just a few notches below Hammel in ERA (3.16) and ranks higher in strikeouts (83). Jon Lester has 70 strikeouts. Kyle Hendricks' ERA of 3.96 also has him in the top 30 in the NL.

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That confidence Hammel provides when he takes the ball carries throughout the whole rotation.

“It’s great, especially as a catcher, to have that much fun with this staff. There’s so many weapons that each guy possesses," Ross said. "It makes it real easy as a catcher, and fun, to be a part of this staff.”

Maybe more than one Cubs starter will make the National League's All-Star roster. But for now, the team is simply enjoying the fact that these pitchers are giving their teammates a chance to win every single day.

“It gives you a chance when you go out there and you’re like, ‘OK, all we have to do is put up some runs,’” Fowler said.

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.