Cubs' first-inning woes strike Hammel after close call
After borderline pitch is called a ball, pitcher unravels in four-run frame, exits in second
CHICAGO -- Cubs catcher David Ross caught the Jason Hammel pitch and held his glove in place for a good, long while. It was a fastball in a 2-2 count against Mets first baseman Lucas Duda in the first inning of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, with two runners aboard, two outs and the Cubs desperate to extend the series another day.
A called third strike from veteran umpire Paul Emmel would have kept the Mets off the scoreboard in the first inning for the first time in the series. Emmel did not oblige.
Two pitches later, boom.
Duda made the most of his extended at-bat by belting a three-run home run, Travis d'Arnaud followed with a solo shot and the Mets tacked on two more runs in the second inning -- one of them charged to Hammel -- on the way to a 8-3 win Wednesday and an NLCS sweep. After another subpar starting pitching performance, the Cubs' season was over.
"I feel guilty," Hammel said. "I never really gave us a chance."
Hammel was charged with more earned runs (five) than he recorded outs (four), pushing to 6.45 the ERA of Cubs starting pitchers in their eight postseason games after Jake Arrieta's shutout in the NL Wild Card Game. Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Hammel combined to surrender 38 hits, including 12 home runs, in 37 2/3 innings of those eight games.
Those starting pitching problems combined with the Mets' success in the same area created an NLCS in which Chicago never held a lead. The Mets scored in the first inning of all four games, and have scored in the first inning of five straight postseason games overall.
"We never really, as a staff, gave our team a chance," Hammel said.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon began his postgame news conference by congratulating the Mets for, among other things, "their domination of the early part of the game" in the series.
"Hammel had a tough time," Maddon said. "Gosh, I didn't see that. I didn't see four points in the first inning."
Maddon, watching from the side, said he didn't realize the 2-2 pitch to Duda was that close. Hammel did and was surprised that the strike zone on the TBS broadcast charted the pitch so far outside. On MLB.com's Gameday tracker, it was right off the edge of the strike zone. Hammel said he "felt like it was a strike."
"I'm not going to complain," he said. "I executed the pitch and the mistake can't happen after that. I feel terrible. I feel like I let teammates down and I let the city down."
"The thing about our group that I really appreciate, there's two things," Maddon said. "They're very accountable and there is not a sense of entitlement among them. So for me to lament the situation like that, I'd be absolutely going against what we're attempting to create within this organization. So bully for Duda to come back and do what he did."
Hammel's second-half slide was severe. After pitching to a 2.82 ERA in his first 18 starts, with a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of better than 5-to-1, he posted a 5.97 ERA in his final 15 starts, including two abbreviated outings in the postseason. Hammel walked more batters in his final 66 1/3 innings (24) than he did in his first 108 2/3 (21). He battled a sore left knee for much of the second half, but never missed a turn in the Cubs' rotation.
"It was a tale of two pitchers," Hammel said. "I felt like I sucked for about three months. The first half was amazing. The knee injury and I was a different guy."
Hammel, who is signed for next season as well, vowed to be better in 2016.
He thinks the Cubs might be better, too.
"We're very proud, and I would hope the city would be, too," Hammel said. "It's quite an accomplishment to win 97 games, and if you think about it, it's over 100 [including the postseason]. That's a hell of a baseball season. Short of the ultimate goal, but we put a lot of work in this season to establish winning."