CHICAGO -- As thrilling as the final curtain was in the Cubs' 4-3 walk-off win over the Nationals on Sunday night, David Bote's grand-slam heroics wouldn't have been possible without Cole Hamels' dominant opening act.In his third start with the Cubs, and his first with them at Wrigley Field, the left-hander
CHICAGO -- As thrilling as the final curtain was in the Cubs' 4-3 walk-off win over the Nationals on Sunday night, David Bote's grand-slam heroics wouldn't have been possible without Cole Hamels' dominant opening act.
In his third start with the Cubs, and his first with them at Wrigley Field, the left-hander completed seven innings of one-run ball. He allowed one hit and one walk, struck out nine and he retired the final 18 batters he faced.
"This is why I play the game," Hamels said. "I do love the game of baseball with all my heart, but to be in the spotlight, big games against big-time pitchers, that's what I live for."
If Hamels lives for matchups with "big-time pitchers," he'd be hard-pressed to find one better than his opponent Sunday -- three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.
Hamels blinked first. A leadoff walk to Ryan Zimmerman and an opposite-field single for Daniel Murphy with nobody out in the second inning set up Washington's first run, a Mark Reynolds sacrifice fly to right field.
"Cole was really good," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Pretty much had it all going on. After he escaped early on, he just settled in and everything was working well."
Everything was not an exaggeration. Murphy was the last Nationals player to reach base against Hamels.
The Cubs traded for Hamels at the end of July to stabilize a talented but inconsistent starting rotation. Hamels was also inconsistent over the first four months of the season while with the Rangers.
Now in Chicago and in the thick of a pennant race, it seems whatever he was working through is a thing of the past. Three starts in, Hamels has given up two earned runs over 18 innings. None of the 11 hits he's allowed with the Cubs have gone for extra bases.
Is he rejuvenated now that he's pitching for a contender?
"Anytime you get placed into a pennant race," Hamels said, "you start to discover a little bit more that's in the tank."
But digging deeper while pitching for first-place team isn't the only thing he attributes to his recent surge.
With Texas, Hamels said, he was focusing a lot on trying to correct his mechanics, which would seem to at least partially explain his 6.02 ERA over nine starts in June and July.
Hamels has been so good since coming to the Cubs, Maddon wasn't sure how old he was when praising the 34-year-old.
"Stuff is high-end, man," Maddon said. "If there's any kind of dropoff [from when Hamels was younger], it's minimal if at all, because I'm not seeing it from the side."
That's saying something, considering Maddon's recollections of young Hamels are from 2008, when Maddon managed the Rays against Hamels and the Phillies in the World Series, and when Hamels no-hit the Cubs at Wrigley in his final start with Philadelphia on July 25, 2015.
Now, however, Hamels is here in the home dugout and pitching like an ace. So far, the decision to bring him in is paying off.
"It's nice to actually be on their side this time," Hamels said. "Being here at Wrigley, getting the fans being you and getting that momentum, it gives you that jolt of energy that you can use."
Matthew Martell is a reporter for MLB.com based in Chicago.