Cubs

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates and surge into September

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates and surge into September

Another quick hook left Jason Hammel seething over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, bringing back uncomfortable questions about how much manager Joe Maddon trusts him, and whether or not the Cubs would find a spot for him on a playoff roster.

Four days later, Pearl Jam’s “Alive” blasted from the Wrigley Field sound system as Hammel warmed up before facing the Pittsburgh Pirates, with no guarantees about October or next season.

Hammel responded with another strong start during Wednesday’s 6-5 victory, completing a three-game sweep that left the Pirates staggering in the wild-card race and helped the Cubs cut their magic number to win the division down to 16.

Outside of a few extreme lows that distorted the perception of his superb overall season – 10-run outings against the New York Mets and at Coors Field and the 39 pitches he dismissively called a side day in Los Angeles – Hammel has been an integral part of the elite rotation that pushed the Cubs to such a huge lead in the National League Central.

Now up 15 games on the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs surged into September with an 85-47 record, an expectation their pitching staff will get healthy and become whole again and a sense of harmony within their clubhouse.

“That’s rearview mirror now,” Hammel said, wearing a Pearl Jam shirt during his postgame press conference. “Joe and I talked it out. There’s no room for off-the-field BS or disagreements or to hold a grudge. 

“I told him how I felt. He told me how he felt and the reasoning for everything. We’re grown men. We solved it and have to respect each other’s views and opinions. To carry something like that would really mess up something special we got going on right now.”

Hammel (14-7, 3.14 ERA) shut down the Pirates for six innings, allowing only one run, scattering three hits and showing the confidence that made him an All-Star-level performer in the first half. 

Hammel regained control of his fastball, spun some curveballs and incorporated a changeup to create doubt in hitters’ minds and add a different wrinkle to opposing scouting reports. He limited the damage to one run in the fifth inning, working around three walks and screaming and flexing his muscles after striking out Andrew McCutchen swinging at a 93-mph fastball to end the threat.

“Yeah, I wanted to get back out there,” Hammel said. “The last one just didn’t sit well with me. So far, so good.”

On a night when the crowd chanted “MVP,” Kris Bryant backed Hammel by launching his 36th homer and playing Gold Glove-level defense at third base. Bryant saved a run by diving to his left to catch a Sean Rodriguez line drive and end the second inning. Bryant began the fourth inning with his answer to Anthony Rizzo’s tarp catch, leaning over the wall and into the stands to catch a Josh Bell pop-up.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But the defensive play of the night belonged to Addison Russell, who with the bases loaded and the Cubs trying to protect a 5-2 lead, raced over from shortstop and made a sliding catch near the left-field line to end the seventh inning.

“This team’s going to be really good for a long time,” said Hammel, who had been packaged with Jeff Samardzija – Thursday’s starter for the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field – in the Russell trade with the Oakland A’s in 2014. “These kids – I say kids now, because I can, because I’m old – they’re impressive and they continue to dazzle.

“You can’t really say surprised, because we’ve come to expect all these great plays and the big knocks that they’re driving in. We’re witnessing greatness.”

After getting 22 wins in a month for the first time since September 1945, this could become the next awkward conversation: If John Lackey (shoulder) returns to full strength – and the rest of the rotation doesn’t experience any setbacks down the stretch – what are the chances of Hammel making a playoff start?

“Stay healthy and we’ll see what happens,” Maddon said. “I don’t bet on the come. Let’s get to the playoffs first, make sure everybody’s well, and at that point then you look at the group you have. And then maybe at that point you look at the group you may be playing. And then you try to formulate the best plan of attack from your personnel versus their personnel. 

“I’ve not even thought about a playoff moment once.”

The Cubs will now have all of September to think about October.

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Marlon Byrd discusses his suspensions for PED use and Ozzie Guillen offers a solution to the PED problem

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NBC Sports Chicago

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Marlon Byrd discusses his suspensions for PED use and Ozzie Guillen offers a solution to the PED problem

Ozzie Guillen explains why he thinks Manny Machado is a better fit for the Cubs than the White Sox. Plus, Guillen and Marlon Byrd react to 19-year-old Juan Soto hitting a homer in his first at-bat with the Nationals.

Later in the show the guys debate who had the better rants in front of the media: Guillen or Byrd?

Finally, Byrd opens up about his PED suspensions, relates to the guys caught using PEDs now and Guillen offers up a solution to rid baseball of PEDs entirely.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: