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.
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.”
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.”
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.
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
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.