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.”

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."