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."

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

Smiling came easy for Anthony Rizzo as stood at his locker and fielded questions in a robin-egg blue T-shirt that read: "positive vibes."

This was roughly a half-hour after he went through the high-five line telling all his teammates the 12-11 victory was a "season-defining win" for the Cubs.

Who knows if it will really be that big of a "W" for this ballclub in the midst of what has been an up-and-down season to this point, but there has certainly been no shortage of positive vibes around the clubhouse lately.

One thing's for certain: The Cubs will wake up Thursday morning in sole possession of first place again as the Cardinals lost to the Brewers in a rain-shortened game in St. Louis.

Yu Darvish and the Cubs bullpen squandered a 6-2 lead and then a 10-9 lead. Yet the offense picked up the slack, smacking 14 hits, including Kris Bryant's game-winning two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"We haven't won a game like that really all year, I don't think," Rizzo said. "They scored 9 runs in the fifth to seventh innings. Teams don't really win when that happens. Just a good, hard-fought, never-quit win."

Rizzo is right: The Cubs haven't won a game in which they allowed at least 11 runs since Sept. 2, 2017 when they beat the Braves 14-12.

The Cubs have claimed 14 of 17 games at home since the All-Star Break and are now 43-19 at Wrigley Field this season - a winning percentage approaching .700 to combat the .390 winning percentage on the road.

So is it a season-defining victory?

"That's what Rizz told me," Bryant said. "We were high-fiving there and Rizz told me this is a season-defining win. I mean, I can't disagree with him. It's one of those games where you don't feel like you're gonna win just because you take a lead and then you're giving it back, but we came out on top. 

"Definitely some good momentum. We're playing good at home here, obviously and just gotta roll with the records at home and on the road."

Early on, it looked to be a night where the Cubs would cruise to victory behind Darvish, who came into the game red-hot and had settled into a rhythm after serving up a two-run shot to the third hitter of the game.

But that wasn't the case, as Darvish served up four homers overall and Derek Holland and Tyler Chatwood combined to allow 4 runs while notching just two outs as the first arms out of the bullpen.

Before the game, Joe Maddon talked again about how he felt like the only way the Cubs would be able to pull away in a tight NL Central race would be if the offense got into a groove and for one day at least, they were certainly firing on all cylinders.

The only starter who didn't reach base safely at least twice was Kyle Schwarber, and he drove in 3 runs on a homer and a groundout in which he hustled down the line to avoid a double play. Darvish even chipped in with an RBI single in the second inning.

Yes, it was a good win. Yes, the Cubs can go to sleep feeling content and wake up feeling hopeful.

But the only way this becomes a "season-defining win" is if the next five weeks play out like they hope. There have been several wins before Wednesday that seemed like they could propel the Cubs - including the finale in Cincinnati on the last road trip where Bryant once again came through with a clutch late homer. And every time, the team failed to keep the good times rolling for an extended period.

This is all a moot point if the Cubs come out and look flat this weekend or fail to carry any momentum onto the road.

"We'll find out," said Maddon, who has been in this game for nearly four decades. "I mean, I've been involved in those seminal moments and all of a sudden, things switch. 

"I'll tell you one thing though - I liked the method at the plate. Nobody was grinding sawdust; everybody was up there nice and chill and were getting good hacks on good pitches. ... I liked that. That's what we need to get to that point."

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Before the Cubs hosted the San Francisco Giants on Day 2 of American Legion Week, Willson Contreras was out in left field running and working out his injured right hamstring.

The All-Star catcher hit the injured list earlier this month after hitting a line drive to the gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

That was two-and-a-half weeks ago and the Cubs initially tabbed the Grade-2 hamstring strain as a roughly four-week timeline. But team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday Contreras is not nearing a rehab stint.

"He's in what our trainers are calling the aggressive strengthening phase of his rehab, which is building up the hamstring strength now that he's gotten through the initial injury," Epstein said. "Always what comes with that is the strength deficit that you have to really be mindful of building back up so that you don't risk reinjuring it when you get back to full baseball activities. 

"You're gonna see him on the field a lot more over the next few days and hopefully soon he'll be progressing to baseball activities. He's not on the cusp of starting a rehab assignment or anything like that. He hasn't really progressed to baseball activities yet, so that will be the next step."

The minor-league season wraps up in the first couple days of September, so Contreras won't have much of an opportunity to get game at-bats and innings at catcher if he isn't able to head on a rehab stint soon.

But the Cubs won't rush it with one of their most important players. Contreras was hitting .275 with 19 homers, 57 RBI and an .890 OPS in 87 games before the injury.

In his absence, the Cubs have been pretty well covered with Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy splitting duties behind the dish.

Lucroy - acquired Aug. 8 after being released by the Los Angeles Angels - is hitting .333 with a .798 OPS in 7 games and has impressed with his work as a game-caller and veteran presence. Caratini continues to put up quality at-bats while building on his breakout campaign.