MILWAUKEE — This sure looked like Joe Maddon proving a point, leaving Jason Hammel out there in the middle of Miller Park, the subtext screaming: You want to pitch deep into games? OK, fine, here’s your chance.
Maddon didn’t exactly manage this one like the Cubs were playing Game 7 of the World Series, refusing to give Hammel the quick hook during Tuesday night’s 12-5 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.
Of course, Maddon had all the answers during his postgame press conference, patiently giving detailed explanations after Hammel surrendered six hits and a walk to the first seven Brewers he faced. Without any feel for his slider, Hammel gave up a leadoff homer to Jonathan Villar, spiked two wild pitches and didn’t get his first out until Martin Maldonado’s sacrifice fly gave Milwaukee a 5-1 lead in the first inning.
That usually gets Maddon’s mind racing, especially with an expanded September bullpen and his awkward history with Hammel, which dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays. Hammel (14-8, 3.50 ERA) is no longer that unproven pitcher, now a respected veteran teammate and a major reason why the Cubs are on the verge of going back to the playoffs for the second straight year.
But Hammel didn’t have it against the rebuilding Brewers (61-77), giving up at least nine runs for the third time this season, and he might not have a spot on the postseason roster, depending on how everything shakes out across the next month.
“I’m not trying to pitch for anything,” Hammel said. “That’s a decision that comes at the end of the season. We got plenty of capable guys here that can pitch in big games. Obviously, you want to be a part of that. But I’m not trying to pitch for a chance to pitch in the postseason.”
“No, not at all,” Maddon said, this isn’t an audition for October, before listening to the follow-up question and not automatically ruling out the idea of putting Hammel in the bullpen to see what he could do there.
“I haven’t even thought about that,” Maddon said. “Absolutely, you could do that, no question, if you chose to look at it that way. But for right now, we haven’t even talked about that.”
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Maddon saw enough on Aug. 27 at Dodger Stadium that he pulled Hammel after only 39 pitches, which led to a meeting in the manager’s office and left the pitcher still seething by the time reporters walked over to his locker.
This time, Maddon kept Hammel out there with two outs in the sixth inning, when Ryan Braun hammered a 92-mph fastball into the picnic area beyond the right-field fence for a two-out, three-run homer that made it a 9-2 game.
The reasoning: Milwaukee presents “entirely different” than a Los Angeles lineup stacked with left-handed hitters, making lefty swingmen Travis Wood and Rob Zastryzny less appealing. Hammel had been 10-1 with a 2.50 ERA in 14 previous career starts against the Brewers. Plus, Maddon wanted to rest certain relievers and not burn out his bullpen.
If this seemed like Maddon thinking big picture and not pressing quite as hard and not going all-out to win that night ...
“There was nothing to press with,” Maddon said. “There was nowhere to go with the full-court press. It was a great lineup for him, and he’s done really well against the Brewers. He had a bad first inning, and he settled in. And then the homer makes it look really bad at the end.”
Take away those three starts with at least nine runs — and that early exit at Dodger Stadium — and Hammel would have a 2.11 ERA that would rank second in the majors behind teammate Kyle Hendricks.
“The (tale) of the tape for me this year is when I’m bad, I’m really bad,” Hammel said. “The overall body of work is really good, so I’m not going to beat myself up.”
With a division lead over the St. Louis Cardinals that’s now 15 1/2 games — and a magic number to clinch the National League Central stuck at 10 — the Cubs can afford to rest the All-Star left side of their infield (like they did with Kris Bryant and Addison Russell), experiment with their pitching staff (Mike Montgomery will start Wednesday night in Milwaukee opposite Matt “I’ll Pitch on the Freaking Moon” Garza) and hold auditions for the playoffs, no matter what they say publicly.
“I didn’t really set the tone for us early, so this one’s on me,” Hammel said. “It obviously doesn’t sit well, but we’re fortunate to have a very comfortable lead right now. Just brush this one off and move on.”