CHICAGO -- Thursday marked the start of American Legion week for the Cubs, which means players are encouraged to show up late at Wrigley Field to get rest and prepare for the stretch run in September. Cole Hamels is ready. So are Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo, who appear to be feeling pretty fresh, judging by their home runs.
Baez launched a monster 481-foot homer, the longest at Wrigley Field this season, and Rizzo added a two-run shot in the first to back Hamels' complete game and power the Cubs to a 7-1 victory over the Reds.
"I love the fact that he was able to complete that game," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Hamels, who notched his first since Aug. 5, 2017, when he went the distance against the Twins. "He was outstanding."
Hamels enjoyed the home run derby. In five starts with the Cubs, he's 4-0 with an 0.79 ERA, giving up three earned runs over 34 innings. Compare that to his final four starts with the Rangers in July when he gave up 21 earned runs over 17 innings.
"In Texas, I got into a rut and was trying to get out of it and sometimes when you strive to get out of something, you can make it worse," Hamels said. "You have to get back to the basics. I felt I was able to do that but it didn't show there. Here, back to the basics, back to what I know how to do."
What's the difference?
"It's something where you have to believe in yourself and just execute pitches," Hamels said. "When you're able to execute pitches, you don't have to strike everybody out. I think that becomes a factor for a lot of us -- when things aren't going right, you want to strike out the world. I've got a tremendous defense behind me and I have to let plays happen."
This also was the first complete game by a Cubs starter this year, and first since Jose Quintana did so last Sept. 24 against the Brewers.
Hamels' outing came just days after the Cubs found out that Yu Darvish would not pitch again this season because of problems with his right arm.
"He's been dominating," Rizzo said of Hamels. "Obviously, losing Yu for the rest of the year, we were hoping he'd come back and be himself but with the addition of Cole, he has all the credentials and he really seems like he's having a good time here."
The lefty struck out six and scattered eight hits. The bullpen will appreciate the effort. Thursday was Day 3 of the Cubs' stretch of 23 consecutive games.
With the win, the Cubs regained a three-game lead in the Central Division and boast the best record in the National League at 73-53.
"This is the perfect time to back off," Maddon said of his tactics, which harkens back to the days when kids played American Legion baseball, showing up at the ballpark and taking the field. "I do believe the last month brings its own energy. When you're in the hunt like we are, there's just a different method going to the ballpark. You don't have to look for that energy and it just shows up in your face."
Rizzo got the Cubs' offense started with his two-run homer in the first off the first pitch he saw from Reds starter Anthony DeSclafani. In the third inning, Baez muscled a 3-2 slider over the left center field bleachers and now has 92 RBIs, tops in the NL.
Baez is tied with the White Sox's Avisail Garcia for the second-longest home run hit in the Majors this year, behind the Padres' Franchy Cordero, who hit a 489-foot shot on April 20.
"Everybody asked me if that was all I had," Baez said. "I said, 'That's it. That's all I have. I can't go farther.' Hopefully, I get another ball like that and hopefully the wind is blowing straight out like it was tonight."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Streaky: Rizzo hit his third homer in as many games in the first inning. With Baez at first after a throwing error by shortstop Jose Peraza, Rizzo launched a two-run blast to extend the Cubs' streak -- they've now homered in a season-high eight consecutive games. Rizzo hit a solo homer on Tuesday against the Tigers and another on Wednesday. On Thursday, he launched the first pitch from DeSclafani 434 feet into the right-field bleachers. It was his 21st homer of the season, giving him 81 RBIs.
Welcome:Daniel Murphy, acquired on Tuesday from the Nationals, played his second game with the Cubs and first at Wrigley, going 2-for-5 and scoring a run in the seventh. Maddon kept Murphy in the leadoff spot for the second game, hoping he could provide a spark. In the seventh, Murphy singled to chase DeSclafani, advanced on a groundout and scored one batter later on Benjamin Zobrist's single.
"I know it's a small sample size but it's a professional at-bat," Rizzo said of Murphy. "To add that to an already very dangerous lineup makes us more dangerous, especially when our MVP comes back in Kris [Bryant]. That's another hard, hard out."
Hamels is the first Cubs pitcher since at least 1908 to give up one or zero runs in at least five innings in each of his first five starts with the team.
HE SAID IT
"For me, it doesn't change a thing. The clubhouse is closed until 4 [p.m.]. I said, 'That's early.' Joe does a great job at being very lenient with us. We're obviously in a long stretch of consecutive games. Being home refuels this team every time." -- Rizzo, on American Legion week
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
With one out and a runner at first in the Reds' sixth, Eugenio Suarez hit a potential double-play grounder to third baseman David Bote. But Suarez was called safe at first. The Cubs challenged the ruling and after a review, the call was overturned to end the inning.
Alec Mills will make his first Major League start and second appearance this year in the second game of this four-game series. Mills is 5-12 with a 4.84 ERA in 23 starts at Triple-A Iowa. In his last outing on Aug. 18 against Oklahoma City, he gave up two runs over six innings, striking out seven. He made one appearance for the Cubs on July 27 and struck out two in two innings of relief. The Red will counter with Matt Harvey (6-7, 4.91 ERA). First pitch is scheduled for 1:20 p.m. CT at Wrigley Field.