Cole Hamels Looking More Like Staff Ace Than Emergency Innings-Eater

When the rumors about Cole Hamels first started, I dismissed them as typical trade deadline folderol that represented, at best, a last-ditch fallback for a team in need of rotation help. After all, the southpaw had seemingly lost all momentum from that historic no-hitter in July of 2015 and appeared to be coasting to the gravel shoulder of a decorated career.

Rather than see a disabled hooptie on the side of the road, however, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer believed that all it would take to get Hamels’ motor going again was a little fuel. His performance had been much better away from Globe Life Bandbox and his secondary offerings still graded out as elite, though most of that was obscured by a bloated ERA and an propensity for giving up homers that made Hamels seem like a more aesthetically pleasing John Lackey.

But maybe all it would take to fix things was a different environment and the motivation of a playoff race. It’s like those commercials for Nu Finish that used to run during Cubs games on WGN. Remember those? In a nifty bit of TV magic, the spokesman went to an old junkyard and miraculously restored the lustrous shine to the paint job of a junked car that had been in the sun for years.

In truth, that’s really all the Cubs should have expected from Hamels, which is to say that maybe they’d just be getting a slightly less faded version of the original. Just a way to get them from point A to point B without too severe a case of carbon monoxide poisoning. All they really needed was for the veteran to be better than Tyler Chatwood, another ballpark-bias gamble whose utter failure to throw strikes had put the Cubs in the market for rotation help.

Expecting more from Hamels would have been opening themselves up to disappointment, though the way he’s performed through three starts with his new team has already defied even the most irresponsibly high expectations. After talking about playing for the Cubs being a dream come true and how the change in scenery would indeed be a good thing, he immediately went out and backed up his words.

Hamels’ first Cubs start saw him stifle the Pirates in Pittsburgh, holding them to a single unearned run while striking out nine against only two walks. Perhaps due to the adrenaline, he also showcased his highest fastball velocity (93.8 mph) since that no-no in Chicago three years prior. Some theorized that the uptick was merely the result of a hot gun. That’s possible, but the 93.6 mph he averaged Sunday night was harder than anything he’d thrown for the Rangers since July of 2016.

Throwing hard certainly isn’t the be-all, end-all, but it’s indicative of Hamels still having a lot more than he was able to muster for the Rangers. Maybe that’s the new ballpark or playing in front of louder fans who haven’t melted like cheap candles in the Texas heat. Maybe it’s just a matter of matchups.

Whatever the case, you can’t deny that Hamels is a different pitcher from the one we saw in the first half of the season. And he’s different from the one we saw when we assessed the distinct possibility of the trade, even if those assessments were hopeful in nature. The lefty has struck out 20 and walked only four of the 69 batters he’s faced with the Cubs so far. He’s given up a total of three runs (two earned) in 18 innings and, perhaps most encouraging, he’s done it different ways.

It was clear during his start against the Royals in Kansas City that Hamels wasn’t on his game. He labored through six innings, allowing seven hits and getting only two strikeouts, but he willed himself to get the job done anyway. That’s something we haven’t necessarily seen much of from other Cubs starters this season. In outings against the Pirates and Nationals, Hamels was much sharper and looked like the Phillies ace most remember him as.

And though it’s silly to say that’s what he’ll be for the Cubs the rest of the way, you have to agree he’s their best pitcher right now. It’s not even a debate if we’re talking about performance since he arrived, though pennants aren’t won with three starts in August. But if he can continue to pitch like he has and the Cubs get more consistent efforts from Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, well, that makes you feel a little better about the playoffs.

Maybe we should wait a little while to discuss that further. All I know for right now is that Hamels has been far better than advertised. Even better than Nu Finish.

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