CHICAGO — It’s not even September yet, but the Chicago Cubs may already be the big winners of the July trade deadline as lefty Cole Hamels continues to dominate the opposition. He upped the ante once more on Thursday, throwing the Cubs’ first complete game of the season in beating the Cincinnati Reds, 7-1.
“That’s what we set out to do,” Hamels said of pitching nine innings. “That’s ultimately the goal. It’s tough to do so now. The hitters are better. A lot more research is going into it.”
Don’t look now, but the Phillies’ Aaron Nola might have passed Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom as the top candidate for the Cy Young Award.
Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish said Thursday that until doctors diagnosed him with a stress reaction in his right elbow, he had concerns that the pain he was feeling was a “mental weakness.”
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Lasting nine innings has become a rare accomplishment, especially in the National League, where Hamels became just the 11th pitcher to go the distance (Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon has done it twice).
“I love the fact that he was able to complete that game,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That absolutely benefits him down the road.”
Maddon is known to have a quick hook, so when the Reds loaded the bases in the ninth inning, the fact that he left Hamels in the game is a good indication of how well he still was pitching. There was no drop in velocity, which is usually a precursor to getting pulled. Maddon’s faith in Hamels was rewarded when Tucker Barnhart bounced into a game-ending double play.
The win improved Hamels’ record to 4-0 with a 0.79 ERA as a Cub, after compiling a 4.72 mark with the Texas Rangers before the July 27 trade.
“To be a major league pitcher, you’re going to have some tough times,” Hamels said of his struggles this season before joining the Cubs. “You can’t give in. You have to fight. That’s what it’s all about. They’re not going to give in. Neither should you.”
Hamels felt his game was coming around before the Cubs acquired him, but the results weren’t reflecting that. Perhaps it was his new team’s good fortune that he struggled so mightily in July for the Rangers. The Cubs ended up getting Hamels for a song while every other contender conceivably could have put together a better package of prospects for him.
“He has all the credentials,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “And he seems like he’s having a good time.”
In fact, Hamels is having a blast. And while he was confident he was making strides in Texas, his success with Chicago has been apparent. To wit:
• Hamels is averaging 93.0 mph with his fastball since joining the Cubs, up from 91.4 mph with the Rangers.
• Hamels threw 60.5 percent of his pitches in the strike zone on Thursday, his second-highest percentage this season.
• The Reds’ average exit velocity was 83.3 mph on batted balls, as tracked by Statcast, his second-lowest average exit velocity this season. His lowest also came after the trade.
Hamels’ game has gone to another level at exactly the right time. Righty Yu Darvish is done for the season due to an elbow injury while the Cubs are starting Triple-A call-up Alec Mills on Friday. Adding to the problems, Chicago is at the start of a stretch of playing 23 games in 23 days. So Hamels going the distance was a godsend for Maddon.
“It’s a really good athlete that happens to be a pitcher,” he stated.
And Hamels just might be the best midseason pick-up of the year. Think Justin Verlander from last August. And if the Cubs didn’t win the trade season with Hamels, they may have clinched it by picking up Daniel Murphy this week. He’s 4-for-10 as a Cub, providing his usual professional at-bats.
But both Murphy and Javy Baez, who launched a 481-foot home run, were overshadowed on Thursday by a 34-year-old left-hander who has provided a spark in the rotation the Cubs have been looking for all season. In going back to basics, as Hamels described after the game, he found himself again. And now he finds himself with the only complete game on a team he joined just weeks ago.
“It provides a boost to the team, to the [starting] staff and to the bullpen,” he said.
Just a day earlier in Detroit, teammate Jon Lester gave Maddon a long stare when he came to pull him from the game, but on Thursday the manager didn’t move from his perch on the top step. Not when he walked his second batter of the night in the ninth inning and not when he loaded the bases with one out. This was Hamels’ game to complete.
“He deserved it,” Maddon simply stated.
And the Cubs’ front office deserves kudos after pulling off one of the better midseason deals of 2018.