The bar was low.
“Hopefully, we get a better start than we did yesterday,” Cubs manager David Ross said before facing the Phillies Wednesday at Wrigley Field, “and build off the offense and how they swung the bats in yesterday's game.”
“It feels great,” Mills said after the game. “It's nice to have some music playing in the locker room after the game. It’s nice to give high-fives, that’s for sure.”
Mills’ winning performance – three runs allowed in 5 2/3 innings – earned him a standing ovation when he left the field.
Mills has been filling a hole in the rotation since mid-June, soon after returning from a lower back strain himself. First right-hander Trevor Williams went on the 10-day injured list after an appendectomy. Then, rookie Adbert Alzolay spent two weeks in the IL with a blister on his throwing hand.
In spring training, Mills had lost the battle for a spot at the back end of the rotation to those two. But now, even with both of them healthy, the Cubs have rotation spots for the taking.
Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta (right hamstring tightness) landed on the IL Wednesday, the day after giving up seven runs in 1 2/3 innings. For the second straight start, he left the game in the second inning.
That was the start Ross said he hoped Mills would top on Wednesday.
“We put up 10 (runs) yesterday,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said after Wednesday’s game, “and we got blown out. So, for the offense to respond and for (Mills) to keep going out there and just getting us through innings definitely helps us -- even when they scored the three runs there – it just helped us to stay locked in and get more runs.”
Mills held the Phillies scoreless for five innings, before giving up an RBI double to Bryce Harper and a two-run homer to Andrew McCutchen.
“Obviously would like to have a couple pitches back in the sixth inning,” Mills said. “But it's all hindsight in baseball. We got a win, and I will definitely take that after the stretch we’ve had.”
The Cubs still had a 5-3 lead when Mills left the mound, and the fans applauded him off with the exuberance of a base that could taste the end of the losing streak.
“He was really efficient getting those guys off-balance, attacked the strike zone” Ross said. “I liked how he pounded the zone with his fastball early on, moving it in and out, up and down. Really broke out the secondary stuff the second time through.”
The Cubs had been sorely missing that type of aggressive approach. The pitching staff issued 10 walks in the first two games of the series.
Does Mills see this as an opportunity to cement himself in the rotation?
“Obviously the success that I’m having is going to do nothing but help me further,” he said. “But really I’m just here to do what I can to help.”
He said something similar last year, when he started all season and tossed a no-hitter. He said something similar this spring when the Cubs relegated him to a swingman role.
Asked what stood out to him about Mills’ journey over the last year, Ross said: “It's just resilience.”