Cubs

The biggest hit of your career and how you got there

The biggest hit of your career and how you got there

During the post-game interview of Game 3 of the NLCS in 2003, I was asked the question that is often asked when a player has a special moment on the big stage.

“Was this the biggest hit of your career?”

The 2019 Cubs are down to crunch time. Every pitch, every relay throw, every call to bullpen gets more consequential every day. The cliché of taking one game at a time carries more weight, even when you are peeking at what the other teams in the race are doing.

In 2003, we were watching the Astros and the Cardinals, like our brothers were playing on those teams. This season, it is the Cardinals and the Brewers.

Even though it is natural to look ahead or even over your shoulder, a player’s arrival to these moments is the sum of the moments from the past.

Nothing brought that into focus more than my journey to the 2003 postseason by way of the Texas Rangers.

When I was traded to the Cubs by the Rangers in 2003, it was at the end of July. Before that, I was playing in the American League for the first time, head buried in figuring out new stadiums and opponents in the AL West and light years away from knowing what was going on in the NL Central.

By the time I was traded, the Rangers were dead in the water, even with a lineup that was loaded with great bats. I spent a good chunk of the first half recovering from a torn hamstring, the first serious injury of my big league career. Wrigley might as well have been on Mars.

The cliché of taking one day at a time gets reinforced when you are working on an underwater treadmill hoping your hamstring will be the same as it was before the injury. One day at a time becomes one minute at a time, and life slows down. Even as you are counting down the minutes left on that treadmill, at 32 years old and fully dependent on a game based on speed, you are wondering if this countdown is actually a timer on your career.

I had already tried to choose a different path than the linear one I was offered during free agency the previous offseason. The straight-line choice would have kept me in Philadelphia. The safe choice where I had been for five years already. I lived there, I went to college there, my Mom lived less than two hours away. They even offered a better contract. But I left in the spirit of betting on myself because the Marlon Byrd Era had started in Philly, and the Doug Glanville Era was coming to a close, at least the one that made me a starting centerfielder.

I was determined to sign with a team that would see me as a starter even as I was approaching my 33rd birthday. That was what Texas represented. I could bounce back from a tough year and play for many more years. That was the plan. A torn hammy was not in the plan.

When I finally returned to the Rangers lineup, I was coming off my first minor league rehab assignment, battling Double-A and Triple-A pitchers with a limp. Within six weeks of finally getting healthy and back to my best baseball, I was traded to the Cubs.

When I arrived, the Cubs were a .500 team. No guarantee of postseason glory was offered. But we scrapped and battled to a division title and my first (and only) postseason appearance. My one at bat in the NLCS came after Dusty Baker asked me if I could play infield after we clinched the NL Central, correcting my negative answer to help me understand that being the emergency infielder was the only way I could make the playoff roster. Since I hadn’t played infield since I was 11, I wondered… How did I get here?

The big hit finally came on that big stage against the Marlins, in the form of a triple. It makes sense that it was the biggest hit in my career in terms of audience, but then I remembered all of the steps along the way.

I had to leave Philadelphia to arrive. I had to be far from the game during my rehab program to get close. I had to limp through hamstring exercises before I could run again. I had to learn to exist without my father who had passed away the last game of the previous season to be my own man. Just getting in the batter’s box seemed miraculous.

When I signed with Texas, there was no reason for me to think I would end up in Chicago in a batter’s box that I had stood in tens of times as a member of the Phillies. But here I stood.

Today, in my line of work as an baseball Insider, we are often required to make predictions, to weigh the information in front of us and make our best guess as to what will happen. A ballplayer knows the impossibility of such forecasting because of experiences like mine that tells us how little control we have in what comes next. We can do our best to be prepared and ready for opportunity.

A team is often the sum of these personal journeys. Nico Hoerner was drafted barely over a year ago, fresh off of a college experience, trying to adjust to life as a professional and then suddenly, he was in Wrigley Field, 22 years old and a key part of the Cubs chances. Javy Baez had to get hurt, Russell had to get hit in the head, the front office had to do their scouting. All of it mattered to the realm of Hoerner’s opportunity. And now, he could be a difference maker. Ask him if he expected that on draft day.

When Andrew Benintendi, the Red Sox first round pick in 2015, was called up in a similar fashion in 2016, I talked him before batting practice at Fenway Park. I asked him, “Did you think you would be here so quickly?”

He looked at me in the middle of a stretch and just shook his head with this look on his face that said “not a chance.” He was good enough talent-wise, but there is nothing like actually being in the reality of the dream. It still surprises, yet now he is a world champion.

The Cubs are here as the sum of all of their stories. Ben Zobrist had to return, Yu Darvish had to find his best game and get healthy, Nicholas Castellanos had to be the best version of his game, Jason Heyward had to struggle in the leadoff role to thrive lower in the lineup. It all mattered.

In this roller coaster season for the 2019 Cubs, we saw a team with high expectations. A talented team that had one goal. A world championship. By this standard, they declared that they had underachieved last year even after winning 95 games.

In a blink of an eye, a division that the Cubs were struggling to hold on to, looked lost as the Cardinals got hot in August. But all of a sudden it is in reach again. It was not the path planned, but it still has a path to where they want to go. Unscripted, improvisational, and in the final stretch.

And somewhere in these final two weeks, a Cubs player may be asked the same question.

“Was that the biggest hit of your career?”

And I would like to offer this answer.

Yes, because I am here now and that was never guaranteed.

Enjoy the ride and don’t forget to look out the window.

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream