As the calendar turned to August last year, Joe Maddon would repeatedly lift Jason Hammel in the fifth and sixth inning of games at the first sign of trouble. And invariably, the lanky pitcher would get upset with the decision. Tonight, Maddon did it again after six innings but there was one crucial difference: I agreed with Hammel.
With Hammel somewhat dejected in the dugout after being lifted for pinch-hitter Miguel Montero, Willson Contreras walked over, put his head on his pitcher’s shoulder, and gave him a bro hug that launched a thousand GIFs. It would not look out of place if it had taken place on a beach in Mexico as Willson whispered “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Hammel was Shawshank-esque tonight in that he was quite brilliant but you only realized it in retrospect. At no point did it seem like he was blowing away the Marlins’ hitters with only three strikeouts in six innings but, after working out of a bases-loaded jam in the first, he hit spots and economized his pitches for the rest of his stint on the mound.
Top Play (WPA): Usually when the top play for the Cubs happens two pitches into the game, that doesn’t bode well for the final result. Especially when Jose Fernandez is the opposing pitcher. Oftentimes that leads to sentences like “Dexter Fowler popped a foul ball out of play. And that was the last time the Cubs made contact all night.”
Not this evening, though. Fowler took advantage of Fernandez missing his location on a fastball inside and laced a line drive down the right-field line. And after the Cubs had struck out 13 times against Fernandez in their previous effort, Giancarlo Stanton reacted with apparent shock that he was going to have to move at all this evening as by the time he got to the ball, Fowler was racing for third (+.093).
On the next pitch, Willson Contreras hit a chopper up the middle resulting in a fabulous diving stop from Adeiny Hechavarria. And the one who could appreciate it the most was Contreras who was already standing on first base with a single and an RBI as if to say “I guess we’re still trailing in style points. Damn”
Bottom Play (WPA): Someday, someone is going to figure out how to prevent pitchers from firing potential double play balls into center field. And when they do, the game will immediately stop so that they can fly to Cooperstown for their automatic Hall of Fame induction.
Until that happens, though, we’ll have to put up with moments like Pedro Strop gloving a chopper from Chris Johnson in the 7th and somehow throwing it in the space between Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell. At that moment, the only sound that could be heard was Jon Lester asking “Am I contagious?” With all the defensive maneuvering Joe Maddon does, maybe there will be one game where he discovers how to call time out after the pitcher fields the ball and immediately replaces him with David Ross.
This led to run scoring singles by Hechavarria and JP Realmuto (-.134). Fortunately, Chris Coghlan made a nice diving catch of Christian Yelich’s sinking liner to left, marking the first time the Cubs had ended an inning with the sole purpose of spiting their Twitter followers.
Key Moment: The Cubs did just enough damage off of Fernandez to pull this one out, and their second run was one of the most entertaining they’ll score all year. With runners on first and third and one out, Anthony Rizzo lofted a pop up into short left field. Fowler bluffed a tag on third base and immediately stopped. Unfortunately, the only person his bluff worked on was Contreras who found himself halfway to second base.
It looked like a sure TOOTBLAN double play but Yelich’s throw to first was practically an eephus pitch that pulled Johnson into foul territory. That was enough to inspire Fowler to dash for home plate and slide around Realmuto to score the run after all. Yelich immediately issued a tweet to state that it was “100% not me in the video making that throw.”
His attorneys are looking into the matter. They have issued a statement reading “It was probably Jeff Conine.”
Contreras was then thrown out trying to advance to second (again) by Realmuto. All that was missing was Rickey Gutierrez tripping and falling around third base.
Trend to Watch: Hammel went into this game with a 3-0 record and a 1.97 ERA in the second half of this year. Those numbers got even better after tonight. It’s almost like he wants to do something put an end to all the talk that he folds after the All-Star Break. Kyle Hendricks has justifiably become the rotation’s breakout star, but Hammel is quietly impressing with each successive start over the past two weeks.
Up Next: After that series in Marlins Park, here’s a sentence that feels good to type: the Cubs go for the sweep tomorrow afternoon to wrap up an excellent homestand. John Lackey (3.69 ERA/3.82 FIP/3.67 DRA) will be channeling his inner Yosemite Sam against hotel room alias Tom Koehler (4.18/4.29/5.77). It’s at 1:20 on CSN.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports