Cubs

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

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. 

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]  

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.”

"He belongs here": What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

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USA Today

"He belongs here": What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

A big part of the Cubs’ MO during the Epstein Era has been the team’s reliance on veteran pitchers. Whether it’s Jon Lester’s cutter, Cole Hamels’ changeup, or Jose Quintana’s sinker, it’s been a while since other teams have had to step into the box against a Cubs starter without much of a scouting report. On the surface, uncertainty from a starting pitcher may sound like a bad thing, but it’s that same apprehension that makes Cubs’ prospect Adbert Alzolay’s first major league start so exciting. 

“There’s energy when you know the guy’s good,” Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s game. “There’s absolutely energy to be derived. But there’s also curiosity. Let’s see if this is real or not. I think he answered that call.” 

The good news for Alzolay and the Cubs is that much of the usual baggage that comes with one’s first major league start is already out of the way. All of the milestones that can get into a young pitchers head -- first strikeout, first hit, first home run allowed, etc -- took place during Alzolay’s four-inning relief appearance back against the Mets on June 20th. 

“I want to believe that that would help,” Maddon added. “It was probably one of the best ways you could break in someone like that. We had just the ability to do it because of the way our pitching was set up, and I think going into tonight’s game, there’s less unknown for him.”

It also helps that Alzolay will have fellow Venezuelan countryman Willson Contreras behind the plate calling his first game. There’s even a sense of novelty from Contreras’ end too. 

“[Catching someone’s debut] is really fun for me,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a big challenge for me today. I’m looking forward to it. I’m really proud of Alzolay, and I know where he comes from - I know him from Venezuela. It’s going to be fun.”

Tuesday's plan for Alzolay doesn’t involve a specific innings limit. Maddon plans to let the rookie go as long as he can before he “gets extended, or comes out of his delivery,” as the manager put it. On the mound, he’s a flyball pitcher with good control that works quickly. Expect to see a healthy dosage of 4-seamers that sit in the mid-90’s alongside a curveball and changeup that have both seen improvements this year. 

Against the Mets, it was his changeup was the most effective strikeout pitch he had going, with three of his five K’s coming that way. It’s typically not considered his best offspeed offering, but as Theo Epstein put it on Monday afternoon, “[Alzolay] was probably too amped and throwing right through the break,” of his curveball that day.  

It’s obviously good news for the Cubs if he continues to flash three plus pitches, long the barometer of a major league starter versus a bullpen guy. Even if he doesn’t quite have the feel for all three yet, it’s his beyond-the-years demeanor that has those within the organization raving. 

“The confidence he showed during his first time on the mound, as a young pitcher, that’s a lot,” Contreras said. “That’s who he can be, and the command that he has of his pitches is good, especially when he’s able to go to his third pitch.” 

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”