LOS ANGELES – Even from the upper levels of Dodger Stadium, inside the Vin Scully Press Box, you didn’t need binoculars or a lip reader to tell that Jason Hammel wanted nothing to do with Joe Maddon.
Not this early on Saturday afternoon, not when the Cubs pitcher came into a possible playoff preview with a 13-6 record and a 3.07 ERA. An animated Hammel gestured toward home plate and walked off the mound in the middle of the third inning, continuing a sometimes awkward/usually productive relationship with the star manager that dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays.
The media waited several extra minutes outside the visiting clubhouse after a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers while Hammel met with Maddon in his office. Maddon’s postgame press conference then lasted almost eight minutes, giving Hammel time to shower and change into his street clothes. Hammel was still fuming by the time reporters wandered over to his locker.
“That’s between me and Joe,” Hammel said.
Hammel – who normally enjoys the back-and-forth exchanges and gives insightful answers, even to uncomfortable questions – declined to get specific about the meeting, the decision-making process or how to work with Maddon.
“That’s a conversation for me and him,” Hammel said. “There’s no reason for that to be in the papers. It’s a professional way of working through it. We’ll leave it there.”
No, Hammel doesn’t get much latitude, even during his 11th year in the big leagues and a strong individual season that had so far answered questions about a second-half fade. But Maddon didn’t like what he saw against a stacked left-handed Los Angeles lineup.
Maddon walked out from the dugout with two runners on and one out in the third inning. Adrian Gonzalez loomed next, trying to extend a 3-1 lead with one big swing. Maddon summoned Rob Zastryzny from the bullpen and watched the rookie lefty get two groundball outs.
“I didn’t even pitch today in my mind,” Hammel said. “I barely threw 40 pitches, so this is a side day for me.”
Zastryzny looked extremely impressive, retiring 11 of the 12 batters he faced, eight days after getting called up from Triple-A Iowa and making his big-league debut, showing that he could become an X-factor for October.
“He was not happy with me taking him out that early,” Maddon said of his conversations with Hammel. “I can understand why, because it’s happened in the past. But I just didn’t see the game straightening out.
“Watching them one time through, it looked like they were on him a little bit. And I thought that was a great lineup for ‘Rob Z.’ One of the things with bullpen arms – I want to put them in a meaningful spot.
“I didn’t see it happening for ‘Hammer’ today, and that’s cool, because he didn’t throw that many pitches. He’s going to be very well-rested for his next start. But it also illustrates ‘Rob Z’ and what he can do for us in the future.”
No, Hammel didn’t look all that sharp, giving up five hits to the 12 batters he faced, including a first-inning homer to Corey Seager and three consecutive hits to begin the third. But Hammel is also a respected veteran teammate who helped the Cubs transform into a playoff team last year and build baseball’s top-performing rotation this season.
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Who cares? The Cubs are still 36 games over .500 and began the day with huge leads over the St. Louis Cardinals (14) and Pittsburgh Pirates (16.5) in a watered-down division.
Well, Hammel is a guy who feeds off confidence and positive reinforcement. The Cubs might need him in October, especially if John Lackey (shoulder) experiences a setback before coming off the disabled list or another starter gets hurt down the stretch.
“It is what it is,” Hammel said. “The guys fought hard. ‘Z’ did a hell of a job coming out of the ‘pen.”
Then again, the Cubs already think Mike Montgomery could develop into a good big-league starter – the lefty swingman got a longer leash given this particular Los Angeles matchup on Friday night – and thought enough of Zastryzny to make him a second-round pick out of the University of Missouri in 2013.
But for now, Maddon allowed Hammel to take advantage of his open-door policy and vent.
“I want them to be able to do that,” Maddon said. “I have a reason why I did it. I’m not going to hide about anything. It’s not like I just picked that out of the hat and chose to do it today.
“You just got to shoot them straight back. And hopefully they can deal with it. There’s a great line: ‘Honesty without compassion equals cruelty.’ So at some point, you got to understand your audience, too.”