Questions about Cubs playoff rotation begin with Jason Hammel


Questions about Cubs playoff rotation begin with Jason Hammel

The Cubs will take their chances with Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation, believing they have two frontline starters to pitch deep into the playoffs and push a World Series contender through at least the next three Octobers.

The Cubs are playing with so much confidence right now they probably don’t want to hear it: But what about Jason Hammel facing the St. Louis Cardinals twice in a five-game playoff series? 

Hammel didn’t really answer that question or erase all the doubts on Monday night, even as the Cubs cut their magic number down to four with a 9-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field.

“It’s very fluid, absolutely, it’s fluid,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s a lot of discussion involved in that part of the rotation. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s not.

“We’ll see how we play it out.” 

Hammel lasted five innings against a last-place team, giving up four runs (three earned) and hanging around long enough to get his ninth win.

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Hammel gave up back-to-back singles to open the game and allowed the first run to score with a wild pick-off throw to first base. He stared out into the distance when Adam Lind hammered a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers in the fifth inning.

“All I can do is stay positive,” Hammel said. “I’m confident in myself. I’m never going to be questioning (myself). Obviously, you’d like to see some better results right now. But I know what I can do here. 

“It’s disappointing that it doesn’t look that great right now. But sometimes you just got to compete with what you got – and that’s it. Trying to fix it in the middle of a pennant race obviously isn’t the easiest thing to do. 

“But I guarantee I’m out there working hard trying to figure it out and small things are falling into place.” 

If the Cubs are going to go on a long postseason run, they will need the pitcher Maddon talked up as a potential All-Star during a terrific first half (2.86 ERA and 105 strikeouts against 18 walks in 103-plus innings).

Not the Hammel who has looked out of rhythm since the hamstring injury that was probably more serious than the Cubs let on initially (5.43 ERA since the All-Star break). 

“We’ll see if we can sharpen him up a bit,” Maddon said. “Velocity is good. Break is good. It’s all about location from what I’m seeing. It’s not necessarily stuff. It’s just where the ball is going out of his hand.”

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But even Maddon’s relentlessly positive spin has its limits: “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that his command was sharp. It’s not true. And he’ll be the first one to tell you that.”

The Cubs have essentially worked around Hammel during this second-half surge, becoming the National League’s hottest team with a powerful, diversified offense, a mix-and-match bullpen (13 relievers on Monday night) and a star manager who’s not afraid to push buttons.

Maddon has kept Hammel on a short leash, not worrying about hurt feelings and managing like it’s already October.    

“It’s all about the team right now,” Maddon said. “I would want to believe that these young professionals understand that it’s not about them. Hopefully, they’re all at Stage 5 right now where all they want to do is win. That’s what you’re looking for. That’s what it takes. Any kind of selfish thought (from) anybody…

“Baseball narcissism’s not going to work right now. You cannot just be about you. You have to be about everybody else, whether it’s to be pinch-hit for, placed in a batting order, pulled from a game, to whine about that right now would not be appropriate.”

Hammel is a good dude in the clubhouse, friendly with the media and thoughtful in how he answers questions. But there is also a real competitive streak to him.

“If I’m the third guy, it is what it is,” Hammel said. “It’s past the ego thing. You check your ego at the door once October hits. You got to put your best guy out there. And I want to be that guy.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.