Cubs

Cubs hoping Jason Hammel can find his groove in 2016

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Cubs hoping Jason Hammel can find his groove in 2016

MESA, Ariz. — Jason Hammel on Monday made his first start since his disastrous second half last year, debuting a minor windup tweak he and the Cubs hope will help him remain consistently effective throughout the 2016 season. 

The 33-year-old right-hander, who’s in the final year of a two-year, $20 million deal, incorporated a shoulder and hip turn into his motion this offseason with the goal of fostering more consistency with his fastball, which was at the root of his second half struggles last summer. As the Cubs stormed their way into the playoffs with 97 wins, Hammel posted a 5.10 ERA in 14 starts, and then was torched in two postseason starts (4.1 IP, 7 ER). 

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Hammel threw his fastball for a strike 70 percent of the time before 2015’s All-Star break — which also coincided with him suffering a left hamstring injury — but saw that percentage drop five points in the second half. While that drop may seem minor, Hammel had a 2.86 ERA in 17 starts before that injury hit in a July 8 start against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“That’s where it all starts and is what I talked about my whole career,” Hammel said. “… Fastball command is one thing, fastballs down in the zone is another. I think I did a lot better with that today, so so far, so good.”

Hammel fired two innings against the Kansas City Royals on Monday — a game the Cubs lost, 3-2 — allowing one hit and one walk with a strikeout. He estimated he successfully timed his delivery about 50 to 60 percent of the time, and was better from the windup than the stretch. It’s still early in spring training, though, and Hammel said the motion is natural to him. 

“When I do click it, it feels much better, and the delivery is effortless,” Hammel said. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he “(loves) the delivery” and noted how different it is from the one Hammel used during the pair’s first stint together with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2006-2008. 

“If he's able to nail down early on where that fastball is going, he will take off,” Maddon said. “He will take off quickly and then the thing would be to maintain that delivery all season and get into the latter part of the year and still be highly successful."

The Cubs went 50-25 after the All-Star break last year despite Hammel’s issues, and clinched the National League Division Series against the Cardinals with Hammel starting Game 4. But, as was the case for most of the second half, Maddon exercised extreme caution with Hammel, yanking him after three shaky innings. 

[MORE: Cubs embracing Joe Maddon's not-so-subtle motto: 'Try not to suck']

Madden hopes Hammel will use spring training to set a foundation with his delivery that’ll allow the second-year Cubs skipper to trust him throughout the season and then, if everything goes according to plan, in the playoffs. Hammel’s start Monday was another step toward sustaining the kind of level of success he's proven he can reach in the past. 

"He came to terms with what happened at the end of last season,” Maddon said. “I think he's been accountable to that moment. He knows he has to get better. I like that. Right now, when I talk to him, he's in a pretty calm, good spot right now. And I think he's eager to see himself play because he knows the adjustments he's made are good and he feels good about them.

“I'm not even worried about (spring training results). I want to see repetition of this delivery. A major league pitcher should be able to throw a strike with his fastball when he wants to. If he gets in those moments and he is throwing his fastball where he wants to, even if he gets hit a little bit, I don't care. Seeing that part of it, that component of it is really important."

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

The Cubs and their fans may want to invent and use one of those Men In Black neuralyzers because the four-game series in Cincinnati was one to forget.

The Reds finished off a four-game sweep of the Cubs on Sunday with an 8-6 win. The way the Reds won the finale will be especially painful for the Cubs considering they led 6-1 after six innings. Mike Montgomery appeared to tire in the seventh inning and Pedro Strop got rocked out of the bullpen to lead to a seven-run seventh for the hosts.

The Reds have now won seven in a row and 10 of 12, but still sit 13 games under .500. Bizarrely, the Reds also swept the Dodgers, the Cubs’ next opponent, in a four-game series in May. Duane Underwood will start for the Cubs Monday against the Dodgers and make his major league debut.

Here are some other wild facts and figures from the series:

  • The last time the Reds swept the Cubs in a four-game series was back in 1983. That was the first week of the season and three weeks before the infamous Lee Elia rant.
  • One positive for the Cubs from the game was Montgomery’s start. Through six innings he allowed one run on three hits and two walks. However, he gave up a single, a double and a single in the seventh before Strop relieved him. Montgomery had gone six innings and allowed one run in each of his last four outings.
  • Strop was definitely a negative. On his first pitch, Strop gave up a home run to pinch-hitter Jesse Winker, the second home run for a Reds pinch-hitter in the game. Then Strop allowed a single, a walk, a single and a double before getting an out. Strop’s final line: 2/3 inning pitched, four runs, one strikeout, three walks, four hits.
  • The Cubs led in three of the four games this series, including two leads after five innings.
  • The Cubs were 5-for-23 (.217) with runners in scoring position in the series. On the season the Cubs are hitting .233 with RISP, which is 22nd in the majors and fourth-worst in the National League (but ahead of the division-rival Brewers and Cardinals).
  • The Reds outscored the Cubs 31-13 and scored at least six runs in every game. The Reds are now 6-3 against the Cubs this year after going a combined 17-40 against the Cubs from 2015-2017.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa victimized the Tigers pitching staff again on the next night, taking Brian Moehler deep in the 7th inning for a 400-foot solo blast.

The homer tied the game at 3, but the Cubs blew the lead in the bottom of the 7th when the Terrys (Adams and Mulholland) gave up 3 runs. The Cubs wound up losing 6-4.

The Cubs were putting together a really nice season in 1998 that ended with a trip to October. They entered the series with the Tigers with a 42-34 record, yet lost both games to a Detroit team that entered the series with a 28-45 record. The Tigers finished the season 65-94; the Cubs finished 90-73.

Fun fact: Luis Gonzalez was the Tigers left fielder and No. 5 hitter for both games of the series. He spent part of the 1995 season and all of '96 on Chicago's North Side. 1998 was his only year in Detroit before he moved on to Arizona, where he hit 57 homers in 2001 and helped the Diamondbacks to a World Series championship with that famous broken-bat single in Game 7.

Fun fact  No. 2: Remember Pedro Valdes? He only had a cup of coffee with the Cubs (9 games in 1996 and 14 in '98), but started in left field on June 25, 1998. He walked and went 0-for-1 before being removed from the game for a pinch-hitter (Jose Hernandez).