The Rundown: Cole Mines, New Rain Delay Pep Talk, Ankiel Trying to Come Back as Pitcher

Cole Hamels isn’t old enough to be called a fossil, but he’s got enough experience to fuel his ability to grind through a start when he doesn’t have his best stuff. Watching him work Monday night was like running errands and having to search through the various loyalty tags on your keychain at each stop. You just have to flip through and see what works, then do it all over again at the next place.

Hamels’ first outing was nothing of the sort, as he displayed a vintage fastball that was offset by a changeup that drew whiffs almost at will. It was evident early on in his second start with the Cubs, however, that the southpaw was going to need a different strategy. Whether it was the stifling humidity or the actual rain in Kansas City, something was clearly affecting his feel.

Consider that in that earlier start in Pittsburgh, Hamels threw his changeup 29 times in 95 total pitches (30.5%) and got 9 swinging strikes (31%). But in KC, he pulled the string only nine times in 97 pitches (9.3%), though he still got three whiffs (33.3%). That usage is tied for his lowest mark of the season and it’s less than half of his average utilization this year.

The curveball, on the other hand, was thrown 22 times (all to righties) Monday versus 15 times last week and the cutter saw an increase from seven to 20 pitches. It wasn’t as though either of those two pitches were particularly effective, just that they were more useful in the given situation that the other options in his bag.

For example, Hamels got only one strikeout from the curve and Royals batters put that pitch in play a season-high four times. And though they only got one hit as a result, their .326 xWOBA (expected wOBA based on batted-ball info) is the third-highest Hamels has allowed this season and the highest in a game in which he’s thrown the curve more than a dozen times.

It might sound as though I’m looking for ways to undermine Hamels’ performance, but it’s actually quite the opposite. There’s a certain beauty in seeing a guy go out there and succeed with a repertoire that clearly isn’t working as well for him as it should. The key was issuing just one walk (he also hit a batter) despite the measly two strikeouts and just executing at the right time.

Hamels never looked rattled, even after consecutive singles and that HBP on a curve that whacked Salvador Perez on the top of the left foot loaded the bases in the bottom of the 5th. Even after going 3-1 on the next batter, Hunter Dozier. The veteran southpaw busted Dozier inside with a four-seam for a called strike, then dragged three consecutive cutters down and in.

Rather than panic, he went right back to the cutter up and away to run the count full on another called strike. Next came yet another cutter, his fifth in a row and dangerously close to being ball four. But needing to protect, Dozier could do little else but fight it off for a foul. Hamels finished the at-bat with an elevated fastball that Dozier beat into the ground at Anthony Rizzo, who shoveled to his pitcher for the final out.

That was some serious pitching, right there. It was like Hamels was standing at a vending machine with his crumpled dollar bill, watching with anticipation as it went in and was repeatedly spit back out. Each time he simply smoothed it out and straightened the bent corner on one end before trying again. And you know what? It eventually worked.

He’s no longer the same guy who no-hit the Cubs three years ago, but if Hamels can keep pitching like he did last night, he’s a helluva good fifth starter.

Strop cues Javy’s big game

Hey, have you heard about that one time the Cubs were playing in an AL ballpark and there was a rain delay, after which the Cubs went out and won the game? And a lot of the credit for their fire coming out of said delay was a pep talk delivered by a player? A lot of people have forgotten all that, so you may not know what I’m talking about.

Monday’s delay was five minutes longer than that fateful break in 2016 and Jason Heyward didn’t factor in this one, nor were the stakes quite as high. But Pedro Strop getting in Javy Baez’s face and pumping his teammate up may have been the difference in the game.

E Mago had gone down swinging twice, both times at those sliders in the dirt that make you wonder what he’s thinking. It’s his inability to lay off those pitches in two-strike counts that Joe Maddon says is the difference in Javy being a really good player and him being Manny Ramirez. And we’re already talking about a guy putting up an MVP-caliber performance this season.

Leave it to Strop to pump his teammate up after an ugly start.

“‘You’ve got two more at-bats,'” the reliever said. “I was kind of screaming at him: ‘Wake up, man. Wake up. We’ve got a game to play and you’re the man. You’re going to get two base hits. Watch. Let them pitch. Let the ball get close to you and hit it.’ That’s pretty much what it was.”

It helped that Royals starter Jake Junis was no longer in the game when Javy came up for the third time, but that takes nothing away from the bomb to center. And when former Cub Jason Hammel (who many probably thought had actually started the game for the Cubs) tried to get Javy with an outside four-seam, it turned into an RBI double.

Baez now leads the NL with 88 RBI and is only five behind JD Martinez for the overall lead. And he’s putting them up in big spots, driving runners in when the Cubs really need them. Whether you say he’s the MVP of the league or not, he’s undoubtedly the Cubs’ most valuable player this season and I’ll brook no truck with anyone who says otherwise.

Cubs notes

• Strop had a good game of his own, running through the Royals with only 10 pitches to close the game. Eight of those pitches were sliders, but he dropped a nasty split-change in there to open the at-bat against Alcides Escobar. Not a bad fill-in for Brandon Morrow.

• Monday’s game was the first in which Joe Maddon was not perched on the top step waiting to pull Hammel early.

• Angel Hernandez admitted that his called third strike on Anthony Rizzo that ended Sunday’s game was incorrect. The Cubs almost certainly would have lost anyway, but it was an awful call under any circumstance. The oft-maligned ump even told Rizzo to go look at the tape afterwards, which proved to be quite the self-own.

“It was a cut fastball, three inches off the plate,” Hernandez admitted to the Tribune’s Paul Sullivan. “Rizzo was right.”

While this doesn’t change my assessment of his aptitude for his job, I have to give to Hernandez for owning this one publicly.

Other notes

• The Dodgers’ Corey Seager is scheduled to undergo hip surgery, a separate deal from the Tommy John procedure that already cost him his season. The Dodgers say their shortstop is expected to resume baseball activity in January and should be ready for spring training, but man, that’s a lot to get through.

• The Pirates acquired Adeiny Hechacarria from the Rays after Tampa DFA’d the shortstop last week.

• Former Cardinal Rick Ankiel, who famously flamed out as a phenom pitcher and then worked his way back to the bigs as a slugging outfielder, is now planning another comeback…as a pitcher. The hard-throwing lefty debuted in 2000 as a 20-year-old and came in second in the Rookie of the Year race before contracting an incurable case of the yips.

Now 39, it’s hard to imagine Ankiel making his way back yet again. But if he’s able to get the velo back up above the upper 80’s that he’s reportedly been hitting, and if he can actually keep from throwing every other pitch to the backstop, there’s always a market for lefty relievers.

Back to top button