CINCINNATI – Jason Hammel had always been optimistic about the rebuild, twice signing with the Cubs as a free agent, first on a flip deal and then the multiyear contract that was supposed to help bridge the team into contention.
But to win 94 games and have the third-best record in the majors by 2015?
“I think everybody would be a little surprised at that,” Hammel said after Thursday’s 5-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds. “But that’s not to say it wasn’t in the cards. We’re good. And we know it."
The rookie hazing meant franchise-level players – Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler – had to put on dresses and pose for a group photo inside Great American Ball Park’s visiting clubhouse.
The youth movement accelerated this year, but to make a long postseason run, the Cubs will need a veteran starter like Hammel to step forward.
For five scoreless innings, Hammel (10-7, 3.74 ERA) shut down a last-place team that has lost 12 games in a row. Hammel looked sharper against a Reds lineup that still included Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier, finishing with five strikeouts and zero walks.
Manager Joe Maddon – who has frustrated Hammel at times with the quick hook – worked off a pregame script and wanted to give his bullpen some work.
“I was obviously surprised,” Hammel said. “I think the only way I wouldn’t have made a stink about it was because I felt so good. I wanted to continue to go out there and feel it. It’s been a little while.
“Any time you’re working yourself out of a funk, you want to keep doing it and keep doing it.”
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Hammel might have needed that boost of confidence for October. A leg injury clearly disrupted his rhythm and impacted his performance before (2.86 ERA) and after (5.10 ERA) the All-Star break.
“A tale of two halves,” Hammel said. “Post-injury, I wasn’t very good. That’s the honest view of it, but sometimes those things can derail you a little bit. Not to make excuses, but I battled and did the best that I could with what I had.”
If the Cubs survive the wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates and advance to face the St. Louis Cardinals, do you expect to be a playoff starter?
“I’m going to prepare that way,” Hammel said.