While David Bote’s walk-off grand slam stole the headlines during the Chicago Cubs’ 4-3 win over the Washington Nationals Sunday, a bigger story might have emerged with starter Cole Hamels.
Hamels surrendered just 1 hit, 1 walk and 1 run while striking out 9 batters through 7 innings of work in a no-decision. He went stride for stride with Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who had an equally dominant performance against Cub hitters.
Hamels is 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his first three starts since arriving on the north side and he hasn’t done it all on veteran “cunning and guile.” He’s shown the ability to get out of jams and fool batters with his fastball and changeup.
So have the Cubs potentially found their ace for the stretch run?
It’s a small sample size, but it’s definitely possible that he can be a go-to arm through September and into the playoffs.
His first and last start showcased his classic dominance. In both outings, he allowed a combined 4 hits, 3 walks and 1 run and struck out 18. Even the start sandwiched in between was still solid. Despite giving up 7 hits and striking out just 2 batters, Hamels willed his way through 6.0 innings to get a win.
Seeing Hamels rise to the occasion isn’t a surprise considering his resume. When he was traded to a contending Texas Rangers squad in 2015, he locked in and went 7-1 with a 3.66 ERA. The next year when the Rangers won the AL West for a second consecutive season, Hamels went 15-5 record with a 3.32 ERA and an All-Star Game appearance.
Before his run in Texas, he was known for pitching well when the lights were their brightest. His 2008 playoff performance netted him the NLCS and World Series MVP Awards. The then 24-year-old Hamels went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts, which included two masterful outings against Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.
Even at 34, Hamels possesses a solid arsenal that includes changeup and fastball with plenty of movement. According to Fangraphs, his fastball’s average velocity hovers around 92.5 mph, which is near his career average. He still occasionally can crank it up to 94 or 95 mph.
Whether he was a victim of a losing situation or powerhouse lineup in the AL, Hamels was awful prior to the trade. He struggled mightily in 10 home starts, going 1-7 with a 6.41 ERA and giving up 16 home runs.
His 10 road starts before the trade? A 4-2 record with a 2.93 ERA and gave up just 7 home runs. Maybe a change of scenery was what the veteran lefty craved and the Cubs present a situation that he typically thrives in.
No one is saying that he’s back to being the Hamels of old. Not yet, at least. There is still a lot of time left in the season and anything can happen down the stretch to change the narrative.
But when you mix the small sample with his past performance, seeing him vault to ace status by the playoffs wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.
The Cubs starting rotation is full of question marks. Jon Lester looked like the ace of the staff earlier in the season, but his second half struggles are are making things murkier. Following another disastrous start in a 9-4 loss Saturday, he’s 0-3 with a bloated 10.32 ERA in five games since the All-Star break.
Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana have been wildly inconsistent throughout the year, inspiring little confidence that either can take the mantle come playoff time. Yu Darvish, who is expected to return in September, hasn’t seen the field since May 20. Anything he provides in the next two months is a bonus.
Hamels’ opportunity to be the No. 1 on the Cubs starting staff definitely speaks volumes about the current situation. Many viewed the deal as a low-risk, high-reward move, but no one thought he’d be more than a fourth or fifth starter.
Still, you have to tip your cap to Hamels so far. If he can continue to pitch like this heading into October, it would be the perfect medicine for an ailing rotation. And if the rest of the starters also perform to their capabilities, the chances of a deep playoff run would grow significantly.