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.
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.”