Cubs

Playoff audition? What a bad game in Milwaukee means for Cubs and Jason Hammel

Playoff audition? What a bad game in Milwaukee means for Cubs and Jason Hammel

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.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here:

Kaplan: Why Harry Caray was simply the best

Kaplan: Why Harry Caray was simply the best

Growing up in the Chicago area, we have been fortunate to hear some of the greatest names in sports broadcasting. From Jack Brickhouse to Harry Caray to Pat Foley to Jim Durham to Pat Hughes to Wayne Larrivee, the list is long and illustrious of the best play-by-play men in Chicago sports history.

For me, growing up listening to and watching many of these men on an almost daily basis only served to stoke my interest in pursuing sports broadcasting as my chosen career. All of the greats were obviously well prepared and technically excellent calling their respective sports, but for me one man stood above the rest because of his irreverence and ability to entertain people in a variety of ways. I ran home from Middleton School in Skokie to watch the final innings of many afternoon Cubs games in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, and I loved Jack Brickhouse and the enthusiasm he brought to each and every broadcast.

However, Harry Caray was the one that captured my heart and pulled me toward this great field of radio and TV broadcasting. Harry was one of the best technical baseball announcers in the history of the sport, but many people who only became aware of him as the announcer for the Cubs on WGN-TV only got to experience him in the twilight of his career, when he was best known for singing the Seventh Inning Stretch and his mispronunciations of players' names.

In the main portion of his 50-plus-year career, Harry called some of the game's greatest moments and saw many of the all-time greats. As the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland Athletics and the White Sox, he became one of the best in the sport with his colorful calls and honesty about the team he was working for. Fans loved his willingness to tell the truth and to openly cheer for the team he was affiliated with. However, when he was hired as the voice of the Cubs on WGN-TV, he became larger than life. With the power of the superstation behind him, he reached another level. A whole new generation of young people became Cubs fans — even if the team wasn't very good — because of the man in the funny glasses who was wildly entertaining.

I fell in love with his style and his entertainment ability. He was must-watch TV even when the games weren't very good. Until the Cubs signed Jon Lester and he became a key member of a World Series champion, Harry Caray was the single best free-agent signing in the history of the Cubs. From 1982 to 1997, he was bigger than almost every player who wore Cubbie Blue. Former All-Star first baseman Mark Grace remembered with a wry smile a story from his days as a Cub that shows just how big Caray was in relation to even the biggest-name players.

"We were playing the Marlins in Miami, and I was signing autographs alongside Rick Sutcliffe and Ryne Sandberg," Grace said. "There were long lines for each of us, and then Harry poked his head out of the Cubs dugout. The fans spotted him and someone yelled: 'Hey everybody, there's Harry!'

"I'm not kidding, everybody ran over to him, and the three of us were left with no one to sign for. We looked at each other, and Sutcliffe says to us, 'Guys, now you know where we rank on the totem pole.'"

Harry Caray was a legend and for me. He was the most entertaining play-by-play man I ever listened to. I still find myself listening to old tapes of him, and I am still as entertained today as I was then. Harry was simply the best.