If you're looking for a seminal moment in the 2019 Cubs season, look no further than Cole Hamels walking off the mound after the first inning in Cincinnati on June 28.
Hamels left with an oblique injury and wound up missing more than a month. But in reality, he was never the same again.
From the time he returned on Aug. 3 through the end of the season, Hamels went 1-4 with a 5.79 ERA and 1.83 WHIP and just two quality starts. Prior to the oblique injury, the veteran had been arguably the Cubs' most consistent starter, going 6-3 with a 2.98 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 10 quality starts.
In fact, he was one of the hottest pitchers on the planet going into that outing in Cincinnati with a 1.00 ERA in his first five June starts.
On the morning of June 28, the Cubs woke up in first place with a 44-38 record, a game up on the Milwaukee Brewers and three up on the St. Louis Cardinals. But from that point forward, the Cubs went only 40-40 while the Cards turned in a sparkling 51-31 record and the Brewers went 46-34.
In hindsight, there are plenty of reasons to point to for the Cubs' collapse, but the starting rotation was a major factor and Hamels' absence — and subsequent ineffectiveness — was absolutely a part of that downfall.
The Cubs had a 3.94 rotation ERA before Hamels' injury, the best mark of the three NL Central contenders. Post-Hamels injury, the Cubs dropped to a 4.43 rotation ERA, easily the worst total of the three squads.
Hamels is gone now, a free agent whom the Cubs did not even extend a qualifying offer to this winter. The chances of him returning to the North Side of Chicago are slim, as the Cubs want to go younger with their rotation. But he did speak on the White Sox Talk Podcast this week about his chances of landing on the South Side.
In discussing his future as a big-league pitcher with NBC Sports Chicago's Chuck Garfien, Hamels also spent some time looking back at his 2019 season with the Cubs — namely how he felt like he rushed back from his oblique injury.
Hamels said he felt fantastic to start the year, as the results showed. He was confident and locked in with his mechanics and had eliminated the slider he was trying to incorporate into his repertoire, going with more of a four-pitch approach (4-seam fastball, changeup, cutter, curveball).
He also admitted he tore his oblique when he slipped on his front leg trying to deliver a pitch in Cincinnati and detailed how the injury affected him for the rest of the season:
"Then trying to come back, I knew that I needed to be back there because I was doing so well and so after healing up and not throwing a ball for almost 18 days, I rushed back into my throwing program and I was just never able to get my shoulder the right strength," Hamels told Garfien. "I felt like, you know what, it will slowly go, it will be more like a spring training. But when you're in games that count, you're gonna grind away and put a little bit more effort on it when you probably can't sustain it and my shoulder was just getting more tired and more tired.
"My front side was now leaking because I was trying to generate the velocity, so I wasn't really throwing off my front side as much and I think then the oblique was always in the back of my mind because I didn't want to reaggravate it, because if I did, I was gonna be out for the season. There's just a lot that was really not going well and then I kinda got to that part in the end of September where I really couldn't lift and throw the ball — my shoulder was just so fatigued.
"I was able to take a week off and everything felt amazing. I was able to pitch the last game, but unfortunately, we were already out of it. Sometimes, I think people look at it like, 'oh, that was bad.' But it just was like, 'no, I finally now feel good. Unfortunately, the season's over.' So that was just a tough situation because I never caught up and I thought I could. Maybe that's what happens as you get older, but I know if I probably would've put in the right amount of time in it building up, I would've been more effective.
"But unfortunately I think it's just the nature of who we are, we just want to be out there and compete as fast as we possibly can and I rushed back. It didn't benefit anybody. That's kind of the tough part. I loved being able to pitch for my teammates and the Cubs and that city and I feel like I really let them down in that situation. I felt like if I could've been at my best, we probably would've made the postseason. So that's something that doesn't sit well with me and that's why in the offseason, I'm trying to make sure that doesn't happen. I can prove myself again. If it's not for the Cubs, it's gonna be for somebody else for their benefit."
As he said, Hamels threw the second-to-last game of the season for the Cubs in St. Louis, striking out 8 in 4 shutout innings in an 8-6 victory. It was his best outing in nearly two months and came on 11 days rest after the Cubs skipped his turn in the rotation.
"I pretty much got like a 10-day recovery, which jumpstarted my body again and my shoulder," Hamels said. "And I watched a lot of video, realized I wasn't staying strong on my front side, so that's what I did in my bullpen before the game and everything was finally clicking. But then all of the sudden, the season ends. And you're like, 'aw, man, I wish I had a few more starts here because then I could really show that I'm A-OK.'"
Of course, Hamels didn't have the luxury of any more starts and the Cubs had already run out of time and been eliminated from playoff contention by his final outing. Maybe things would've been different for the 2019 Cubs if they had figured out sooner that shutting down Hamels for a few days between starts would give him all the juice he needed to regain his pre-injury form.
As it stands, Hamels is looking for work and the Cubs are looking for ways to shake up their roster after a disappointing 84-win campaign.