Cubs

Cubs' red-hot starting rotation is 'the engine that's gonna drive the vehicle'

Cubs' red-hot starting rotation is 'the engine that's gonna drive the vehicle'

Cole Hamels still hasn't even been in a Cubs uniform for a full calendar year, but he continues to add to his already eye-popping resume.

After shutting down the Cardinals for eight innings in the Cubs' 3-1 win Friday, Hamels has now permitted just 1 earned run in 22 frames against the division rivals dating back to last season. Fifteen of those innings have come over the last week, as Hamels faced the Cardinals in back-to-back starts and allowed only a lone unearned run in that span.

It is a continuation of the incredible success the Cubs rotation has had the last nine games, posting a 1.96 ERA and 0.80 WHIP while surrendering 3 or fewer runs each time out:

Cubs starters have been averaging nearly 7 innings an outing in that span, taking a huge burden off the bullpen.

Everybody is understandably buzzing about the eventual addition of Craig Kimbrel to the relief corps, but with starting pitching like this, it sets everybody up for success and could be the real key to the Cubs' season.

"All five of our guys, if you look at them all, legitimately nobody's a No. 5 starter and probably nobody's a 4 starter, either," Joe Maddon said. "I believe the starting pitching is the engine that's gonna drive the vehicle, absolutely."

Friday's outing extended Hamels' career record as a Cub to 9-5 with a 2.81 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 148 strikeouts in 154 innings across 25 starts. 

He also continues to perform well at Wrigley Field, dipping his career line on Chicago's North Side to 1.83 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 127 strikeouts in 128 innings.

Right now, it feels like almost anybody could be considered the Cubs' ace. 

Both Hamels and Jon Lester have gotten through a tough stretch and look lights out once again. Kyle Hendricks has a 2.09 ERA since the beginning of May. Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish are both throwing the ball about as well as we've seen them in a Cubs uniform.

After the game, Hamels admitted that the Cubs rotation is feeding off each other right now — the same way a red-hot lineup helps make everybody on the offense feel like they're seeing the ball well.

"When one guy does well, the next guy wants to do better," Hamels said. "It's kind of the internal friendly team competition that we have inside us to prove to each other that we can do it, too. I think you can see it when you have all four of us sitting and watching. We're encouraging that.

"We want our teammates to do better, because I think that's what it promotes — just that positivity. And you have guys who are pretty good at what they do. Any extra positive reinforcement is just gonna make us even better. 

"That's what we want — we all want to win every game, we want guys to win 20 games and go 200 innings and strike out everybody. We want that and I think you can feel it."

Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

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USA TODAY

Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

Just a few weeks after utilizing a six-man rotaiton, the Cubs are considering dropping back to a four-man starting staff for a bit.

Cole Hamels threw a bullpen Wednesday morning at Wrigley Field and reportedly felt great, but he's still at least a week or so away from returning to the Cubs rotation.

Couple that with the four days off for the All-Star Break last week and regular off-days coming up (three more still in July), the Cubs don't have an actual *need* for a fifth starter more than once between now and Aug. 3, as their four mainstays will be able to go on regular rest.

"We're gonna discuss that internally — things we want to do," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "We have the ability to go with a four-man [rotation] for an extended period of time with those off-days."

Hottovy acknowledged a four-man rotation is the Cubs' preference rather than keep Alec Mills in the rotation long-term, but there are many factors to consider.

"Our guys are feeling good, so we don't want to push the envelope with all these off-days and [tell the pitchers], 'you're still gonna be on a five-day rotation,'" Hottovy said. "So we gotta all talk and communicate about how guys are feeling and make that decision."

The Cubs have been cautious with their pitchers coming out of the break, too, given they've all been thrown off their normal rhythms and routines. It's also worth noting that Kyle Hendricks is still working his way back up to full strength after a shoulder injury cost him much of June.

When the Cubs opted to go with a six-man rotation last month, the whole idea was to rest these guys and make sure they're feeling fresh for the second half and down the stretch. The team had a pretty brutal stretch — 52 games in 54 days — before the All-Star Break.

But if everything continues to progress with Hamels and his oblique injury, the Cubs may not need a four-man rotation for long, even if they opt to go that route. 

After Wednesday's bullpen, the Cubs are going to give Hamels a couple days to recover and will plan another bullpen for this weekend (likely Saturday). Just like with Hendricks' recovery, the first bullpen is more for a gauge to see where the guy is at physically and then the second one will be more of a normal routine and getting back into rhythm mechanically, etc.

Following that weekend bullpen, the Cubs don't know yet whether they're going to have Hamels throw a simulated game or go on a rehab assignment as the next step. They'll evaluate all that this weekend and thanks to the regular time off coming up, they know they don't have to push it.

"If he feels good, we also don't want to slow-play Cole Hamels," Hottovy said. "He's a guy we want in the rotation."

The Cubs are off Thursday but then play six straight games and they will need a fifth starter for that stretch (next Tuesday in San Francisco).

As of right now, it sure looks like that guy could be Mills, who rebounded nicely after a rough first inning during Tuesday night's victory. 

Mills — a 27-year-old right-hander — has only pitched 11 career games in the big leagues, but he's been a nice depth option for the Cubs the last couple years. Including Tuesday night, he has a 4.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 24 big-league innings for the Cubs the last two seasons.

"I have a lot of confidence [in him]," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's definitely a big-league caliber pitcher. I don't think he's a 4-A guy; I think he's more than that. He just needs opportunity."

Both Maddon and Hottovy mentioned Mills' last start with the Cubs last August when he gave up a first-inning grand slam to the Mets before settling in to throw 4+ innings of solid ball from there.

Tuesday night, Mills got two quick outs (thanks in large part to Albert Almora Jr.'s defense) and then served up a solo homer to Eugenio Suarez, who absolutely kills the Cubs. From there, it was back-to-back hit batters and then a groundball basehit that went right to where third baseman Kris Bryant would've been standing had he not broke for the bag to cover on a steal attempt.

Mills was inches away from getting out of the first inning with only 1 run allowed, but he also only eventually escaped the jam when Almora threw a runner out at home plate on a double off the wall — or else there could've been even more damage.

After that, Mills held the Reds scoreless for the next five innings to notch the first quality start of his career.

"He regrouped well," Hottovy said. "Millsy's a pro. The guy's been mostly a minor-league guy, but I still consider him kind of one of those veteran guys. He's smart, he's poised. He comes in after that inning and he's like, 'Yeah, I thought I did this well, I didn't do this well.' And then we talked through it and he's able to wipe it clean and then reset. 

"It was such a good job by him to be able to do that with a good hitting team — to come back and set the tone. It's easy to have that inning and then kinda let things keep escalating. He was able to go right back down the next inning and shut 'em down and that really set the tone."

Basket Slam: Wrigley's quirks come to Cubs' aid in walk-off win

Basket Slam: Wrigley's quirks come to Cubs' aid in walk-off win

The Wrigley Field basket has played a huge role in this week's Cubs-Reds series.

In Monday night's game, Cincinnati catcher Curt Casali hit a game-tying homer into the basket in the seventh inning of a game the Cubs went on to lose.

But the basket giveth and the basket also taketh away.

Tuesday night, it was Kyle Schwarber and the Cubs who were singing the praises of one of the strangest ballpark quirks in baseball.

Schwarber connected on a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th inning off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias, hitting a fly ball through the impossibly-humid air and into the basket in left-centerfield for a 4-3 Cubs win.

"Whoever thought about that basket — whenever that occurred — tell them, 'thank you,'" Joe Maddon said. "Although it did work against us [Monday]. When it works for you, it's awesome."

Schwarber has stood under the left-field basket many times with his back against the wall, thinking he might be able to make a play on a high fly ball only to see it settle into the wickets and turn into a chance for a Bleacher Bum to show off their arm. 

But is he a huge fan of the basket now that it worked in his favor?

"I guess so," Schwarber laughed. "Yesterday, it cost us, but today, it helped us out. It's just the factor of Wrigley Field. Happy it worked out today."

It was Schwarber's first career walk off RBI of any kind.

It was the Cubs' fourth walk-off homer of the season, but their first since May 11 when Willson Contreras called "game" on the Milwaukee Brewers. 

The Cubs are now 4-1 since the All-Star Break and hold a 2.5-game lead in the division.