Cubs

Mets hammer Jason Hammel, picking up where they left off against Cubs last October

Mets hammer Jason Hammel, picking up where they left off against Cubs last October

NEW YORK — Cubs fans created a happy-to-be-here vibe during last year’s surprising playoff ride — and also booed Jason Hammel at Wrigley Field in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

While this didn’t fit John Lackey’s classic definition of a “Big Boy Game,” the New York Mets again crushed Hammel and dominated the Cubs during Friday night’s 10-2 blowout at Citi Field, reopening questions about that breakdown last October.

Hammel gave up 10 runs across four-plus innings in a game that technically ended on Saturday morning and didn’t have any flow with three separate rain delays that lasted one hour and 59 minutes combined. While Cubs Twitter wondered about the possibility of another second-half fade, Hammel shrugged his shoulders after his ERA soared from 2.58 to 3.45 on July 1.

“Where do you start?” Hammel said at his locker. “Always try to get to new levels in your career, you know, set career highs, so got a couple of those taken care of.

“I’m just going to let this one disappear. I’m almost lost for words just because of how bad it was.

“Tomorrow’s a new day, and this game always has a way of basically humoring you and also humbling you at the same time. I’m not even going to sweat it. Obviously, not happy that we lost. But I’m not going to let it beat me up.”

[MORE CUBS TALK: With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs see issues Mets exposed in NLCS]

Hammel wouldn’t use the weather as an excuse for his lack of rhythm — “Mother Nature is Mother Nature” — and pointed out it didn’t disrupt Jacob deGrom (4-4, 2.62 ERA), who allowed one run across five innings and finally got enough offensive support to earn his first win since April 30.

The Mets blasted five homers off Hammel, including back-to-back shots from James Loney (an injury replacement who had been with the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A affiliate in late May) and Asdrubal Cabrera in the second inning, Brandon Nimmo’s first in The Show and another lightning-quick swing from Yoenis Cespedes.

Against a team desperate for offense, Hammel matched a franchise record — this was only the sixth time in club history that a single Cubs pitcher gave up five home runs in a game.

After an offseason reboot, the Cubs hoped Hammel 2.0 would be a more sustainable model. The sign-and-flip guy had gone 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA through 17 starts in 2014 before getting packaged with Jeff Samardzija in the Addison Russell trade with the Oakland A’s (where he went 2-6 with a 4.26 ERA).

The punctuation to that NLCS sweep — getting four outs in an 8-3 elimination loss to the Mets — seemingly began with a leg injury that messed with Hammel’s mechanics and confidence and divided his season into before (2.86 ERA in 103-plus innings) and after (5.10 ERA in 67 innings) the All-Star break.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Everyone has off nights, Hammel has performed at an All-Star level for long stretches throughout his career and the Cubs (51-28) still have the best record in baseball and a 10-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.

But with all these young power pitchers, Cespedes in the middle of their lineup, lights-out closer Jeurys Familia and a resourceful front office, the Mets (42-37) aren’t going to concede the pennant just because the Cubs won the offseason, lead the league in T-shirts and have an awesome run differential.

“Over the course of 162 games, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” Hammel said. “You try to make those few and far between, but they’re going to happen.

“As long as you don’t take it with you for the next day, it’s not going to effect us at all.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.