World Series

A rejuvenated Cole Hamels has been a godsend for Cubs’ inconsistent rotation

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AP

A rejuvenated Cole Hamels has been a godsend for Cubs’ inconsistent rotation

Small sample size and all that, but Cole Hamels is doing a damn good job of keeping the narrative relevant that he could be this year's Justin Verlander.

Hamels was dealt to the Cubs ahead of the trade deadline last month whereas Verlander was a waiver deal to the Houston Astros last August. But they share a lot in common as veteran starting pitchers with impressive resumes that had appeared to be toward the tailend of their career before a rejuvenation thanks to a late-season trade.

Verlander helped the Astros win the World Series last fall and we don't yet know if Hamels will be able to accomplish the same feat in Chicago.

Through three starts, the 34-year-old southpaw has been far better than anybody's wildest dreams.

After carving through the Nationals' powerhouse lineup Sunday night locked in a pitcher's duel with the likely 2018 NL Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer), Hamels now has a 1.00 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in a Cubs uniform with 20 strikeouts against only 4 walks in 18 innings.

He also has yet to allow an extra-base hit in a Cubs uniform. The only reason he's not 3-0 in those three starts is because the Cubs were unable to provide any support Sunday against Scherzer and the Washington bullpen until David Bote's heroics in the bottom of the ninth.

"It's saying something when you win ballgames here," Hamels said. "I mean, this place is electric. This clubhouse has been outstanding and the energy that we have after the games, that was something special today.

"That was a real joy to be a part of obviously the way that it ended, you just have to get credit to all these guys. They fight to the very end. To be able to do this against a tremendous team over there, it just makes it that much sweeter tonight."

Hamels had more 1-2-3 innings Sunday night (6) than Jon Lester has the entire second half (3).

And the Cubs got him for a 23-year-old pitcher in A-ball and Eddie Butler while also getting the Rangers to kick in enough money to keep Theo Epstein's squad under the luxury tax in 2018.

To Joe Maddon, this still looks like the same guy that shut his team down in the 2008 World Series and no-hit the Cubs at Wrigley Field in July 2015.

"Of course he's probably been reborn a little bit coming to us right now," Maddon said. "But stuff is high-end, man. If there's any kind of drop-off, it's minimal if at all. Because I'm not seeing it from the side."

Hamels is doing all this with an elite changeup which is generating a swing-and-miss nearly half the time he throws it:

With a wicked changeup like that, you'd think Hamels would go to it all the time. He did in Pittsburgh and used it a bunch against the Nationals Sunday night, but it was not a major part of his game Monday night in Kansas City.

Hamels wasn't feeling his changeup against the Royals and instead relied on his curveball.

Even when his best pitch isn't working, Hamels' intellect and wide array of pitches gives him plenty of weapons to shut down the other team and now he's rejuvenated with a move back into a postseason race.

"I think anytime you get placed into a pennant race, you start to discover a little bit more that's in the tank that you might not necessarily have been able to go down and really gather," Hamels said. "But at the same time, I really was focusing a lot, even when I was down there [in Texas] — trying to correct my mechanics.

"That was something that was off and I knew it was off and it was just a matter of trying to identify it. And then putting in the work to get the muscle memory so I could actually go out there and perform at the level I know I'm capable of doing. It's now being able to see that and getting the results, that's how you build momentum, that's how you get back to what I know I'm capable of doing and that's going out there and helping the team win ballgames."

It was a decade ago, but Hamels was named the NLCS and World Series MVP with the Phillies in 2008 as he took down Maddon's Rays in the Fall Classic.

All this from a guy who was in the midst of the worst season of his career in Texas (5-9, 4.72 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) before the trade.

The Cubs bet on that big-game experience and veteran savviness and it's paid off in a big way so far. 

"Love the situations," Hamels said. "This is why I play the game. I do love the game of baseball with all my heart. To be in the spotlight in big games against big-time pitchers, that's what I live for. That's what I'm here to go out and try to do.

"That's something that has always been what I've enjoyed most about pitching is being on the biggest stage possible."

Jon Lester's struggles have hit alarming stage for Cubs

Jon Lester's struggles have hit alarming stage for Cubs

Just before Jon Lester walked off the mound to hit the showers, a smattering of boos rained down from the 41,320 fans at Wrigley Field.

My, how the turntables have...

This is the same Jon Lester that signed a $155 million deal before the 2015 campaign, immediately bringing a championship credibility to the clubhouse and changing the culture of losing. 

The same Jon Lester that was co-NLCS MVP in 2016 and pitched out of relief to help the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years.

The same Jon Lester that has a career 2.55 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 148 postseason innings.

The same Jon Lester who was being heralded as the savior of an underperforming Cubs rotation for the first three-plus months of the 2018 campaign.

Booing Lester is silly, but you can't blame Cubs fans for being frustrated with the results of late (Lester's surely frustrated, too).

After getting tattooed for 8 earned runs in 3.2 innings during Saturday's game against the Nationals, Lester's season ERA has ballooned to 3.89.

Neither Lester nor Joe Maddon had any answers Saturday evening about what's behind these struggles or how - specifically - to right the ship, but neither projected a "sky is falling" attitude.

"I feel like I made some really good pitches today that didn't go my way and that's kinda where Im at right now," Lester said. "When I didn't, they got hit. That's the price you have to pay when you don't execute when you need to. These are big league hitters. The more opportunity that you give them to stay within that count or stay within that at-bat, the more likelihood they are to get a hit or hit something hard.

"Like I said, it's really been my whole year, I feel like when I do have a hitter on the defense, I'm not putting them away. I'm either just off or just down or they foul it off and now it's on to the next pitch. Unfortunatley, it's where I'm at right now and I need to make the adjustment somehow.

"...At the end of the day, the results aren't there and this is a results-driven industry. And I'm not doing my job."

He earned a spot on the All-Star team last month thanks to a 12-2 record, 2.58 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, but things have not been great since then.

His second-half numbers have been alarming: A 10.32 ERA, 2.07 WHIP, 36 hits and 9 homers allowed in 22.2 innings. Over those five starts, Lester surrendered at least 4 earned runs in four of them.

Of the 25 innings Lester has thrown a pitch in since the All-Star Break, he's managed to record just three "1-2-3" innings.

Lester was the anchor the Cubs badly needed in the rotation in the first half and now his struggles come at a time when Kyle Hendricks and Mike Montgomery are finding their groove and Cole Hamels has been a boost to the starting five.

"I guess I'm just in this rut right now," Lester said. "I don't know. I probably felt like that was some of the better stuff I've had over the last couple starts and that was the outcome. So unfortunately the rotation has been throwing the ball well and now I'm the guy that's not.

"That's a bad feeling. Bad feeling personally as a teammate, letting the team down, letting the bullpen down, all of the above. Continue to work and continue to try and figure it out and make adjustments."

Maddon insists he doesn't see anything differently from the Cubs ace, that he's healthy, velocity isn't down and "stuff" has been good. 

"I'm not really worried about him right now," Maddon said. "Again, if he was injured, I'd be more concerned. If there was something that looked dramatically different, but I don't see that. Sometimes, it's like a hitter, you go through a little bit of a slump, then you come back out of it.

"But I don't see anything dramatically different the way he's winding up, throwing the baseball and the numbers on the board [velocity] look the same. It's gotta be an execution situation."

In actuality, Lester's velocity is down again overall this season, but only very slightly from the dip he experienced in 2017. His "stuff" has not been as effective, however.

FanGraphs rates Lester's cutter at -3.9 runs above average after that was his bread-and-butter pitch in 2017 (9.1 runs above average) and 2016 (18.7). His changeup is the only pitch that rates positively right now, but he only throws that about 10 percent of the time.

A lot of this right now could be regression after experiencing quite a bit of luck in the first half.

That doesn't make it any less concerning for the Cubs, however.

During his 3.2 innings Saturday, 8 Nationals registered an exit velocity of at least 100 mph when they made contact, including the last 7 balls in play off Lester. On top of that, 4 more balls were hit with an exit velocity of at least 90 mph.

Lester maintained he's healthy and while he's not happy with his performance, he's not going to overreact, either. Like usual, he was very self-aware and open as he refused to make excuses after this latest bump in the road.

"Yeah. I'm not worried about it," Lester said. "I shouldn't say that. I don't want to take away from today — today was pretty bad as far as the results. But this is the ebbs and flows of the season. Unfortunately, I'm pretty down right now as far as where I've been pitching and giving innings and my start date hasn't been great and I need to pick that part up.

"But I've been through it before; I've come out the other end just fine. I gotta keep working. Unfortunately in this game, it's results-driven and when you're not getting results, you want to immediately run to something. You want to run to you're tipping [pitches], you want to run to mechanical [issues], you want to whatever and sometimes it's really nothing. It's just about a little bit of luck, a little something here or there to give you that break.

"I dont' want to take anything away from today, but I'm not worried. I feel great physically. It's not like I'm battling anything to try to execute pitches. It's just for whatever reason, I'm not executing when I need to and getting those outs. I knew after the first inning today they were gonna be aggressive to the fastball and they were. I just wasn't able to put them away before I had to go back to that fastball and that's all on me."

Even before Saturday's game, Lester was allowing the highest "hard contact" rate and lowest "soft contact" rate of his career.

Couple that with his lowest strikeout rate since 2008 and highest walk rate since 2011 and it adds up to yet another huge question mark in a Cubs rotation full of those.

Forget how a playoff rotation may take shape for this Cubs team — the more pressing concern now is how Lester navigates through the final seven weeks of the regular season before October even begins.

Lester is a seasoned veteran and has an incredible track record of success, so chances are still very high he can transform back into a frontline pitcher for this Cubs rotation. But even he admits he's a different pitcher now at age 34 than he was in 2016 when he was challenging for the NL Cy Young.

His Cubs teammates aren't concerned, either.

"Jonny's a pro," Anthony Rizzo said. "He knows how to handle success and he knows how to handle failure with the best of them. He's our horse, we lean on him and we're gonna continue to lean on him down the stretch.

"I know for a fact that we have all the confidence in the world when he goes on the mound to pitch well and get us a W."

WATCH: White Sox grounds crew member Nevest Coleman receives 2005 World Series watch

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AP

WATCH: White Sox grounds crew member Nevest Coleman receives 2005 World Series watch

Nevest Coleman, a White Sox grounds crew member who was wrongly convicted of rape and murder in 1994, received a World Series watch by team owner Jerry Reinsdorf Wednesday afternoon.

In 2005, every groundskeeper was given the same commemorative timepiece. Coleman was rehired in March after he was freed from imprisonment after 23 years in November when DNA evidence exonerated him. The organization decided to give him the device he would’ve gotten if he was still working for the White Sox during the time they won the World Series.

The team issued a statement in March about having Coleman back as an employee.

“We’re grateful that after more than two decades, justice has been carried out for Nevest,” the White Sox said. “It has been a long time, but we’re thrilled that we have the opportunity to welcome him back to the White Sox family. We’re looking forward to having Nevest back on Opening Day at home in our ballpark.”

Now, he is working at Guaranteed Rate Field for one of his old crew mates, who is now his boss, and is grateful to have his job again on the South Side.

“They didn't have to hire me back,” Coleman said in March. “I appreciate the White Sox giving me the opportunity to come back to work.”