So much for all those questions at the back end of the Cubs’ rotation.
If Alec Mills’ out-of-nowhere no-hitter Sunday in Milwaukee wasn’t an answer for what the Cubs might do for starting depth in the playoffs after Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, it looked at least like a promissory note on October.
But more than that, it was a dazzling, baffling reminder for nine innings of the kind of unexpected turns careers and seasons can take — if not the kind of pitcher the Cubs dreamed on when they acquired the former walk-on college pitcher from the Royals in a low-level trade three years ago.
“I’m just proud to be able to be that person who can tell you to never give up, never stop playing, never let people tell you what you can and can’t do,” said Mills after striking out five and scattering three walks in the Cubs’ first no-hitter since Jake Arrieta’s 2016 gem in Cincinnati. “And to just keep persevering, and be the best person you can be.
“This is something that I probably never would have imagined in my life,” he said.
Against the quiet backdrop of a stadium without fans, during a season without precedent, it was only fitting that a Cubs pitcher without Darvish’s stuff and without Jon Lester’s pedigree would pitch the game without a hit allowed.
That the improbable performance followed less than 20 hours after the Cubs’ impossible ninth-inning comeback against Josh Hader extended and heightened the emotional peak of a Cubs season that had sagged for weeks since a 13-3 start.
Whether it’s a harbinger for how the final two weeks of the season and a wide-open postseason might play out for the Cubs, it seemed to affect emotional bellwether Javy Báez, who screamed in celebration when the final out was hit his way Sunday — before throwing to first.
“We’ve got to compete until the last out, no matter [the score],” Báez said of difference in mood between trailing 2-0 entering Saturday’s ninth inning and finishing off Sunday’s no-hitter for Mills. “We knew if we play as a team we can be really good and be really dangerous.
“That’s what I tried to say even when we [slumped]. Sooner or later it pays off.”
Consider that the story of Mills’ season, if not his baseball career.
The right-hander who walked on at Tennessee-Martin a decade ago — going from reliever to ace by the time he was drafted in the 22nd round in 2012 — lost the Cubs’ fifth-starter battle to Tyler Chatwood in spring training a few days before the pandemic shut down the season.
This is a pitcher with a modest-at-best fastball, a slow curveball that would have trouble keeping up with traffic on the Kennedy and until Sunday a guy without a full season in the majors — or a nine-inning start in his pro career.
By the time the team reconvened 10 weeks ago, José Quintana had an injured thumb, and Mills — who had stayed on a vigorous throwing program during the downtime — was in the rotation.
Then came two big starts out of the chute, a five-start struggle (7.66 ERA) and a bounce-back, six-inning, scoreless start against the Reds on Tuesday when the Cubs desperately needed a sign of life from somewhere in the rotation after Darvish and Hendricks.
“One thing that stands out to me about Alec is that no matter what situation I put him in this year, he’s answered the expectations that we have for him and answered without complaining,” said first-year manager David Ross — who caught Arrieta’s no-hitter in 2016. “He’s just a guy you root for.
“It’s just a proud-parent moment,” Ross said. “You see the adversity somebody’s been through and to work hard, get an opportunity and make the most of it, that’s really rewarding from my seat.”
Said Mills: “Obviously, preparation’s the key. … I fixed some things a couple starts ago, and I’m just really feeling good and starting to see rewards, so i’ll take them.”
Wherever that takes him the rest of this month, next month and beyond that, he earned something Sunday that “I’ll never forget” — while also giving the team a significant, needed boost in the final weeks of the most stressful, surreal season any of these players have experienced.
“This is something like a championship kind of thing,” Báez said. “No one can take it away from you, so I’m really, really happy that I was a part of it.”
Did somebody say championship?
The Cubs opened a four-game lead over the second-place Cardinals Sunday with 12 games to play and haven’t been this high on their season since those first 16 games.
“It feels good,” Ross said. “The last 10 innings have been really good for us.”