'W' is bottom line for Game 4 starter Hammel
Cubs righty set to face Mets with club needing victory to extend NLCS
CHICAGO -- Three times in his career, including this season, Jason Hammel has been part of postseason teams that finished in last place the year before. The secret, he suggested Tuesday, is a healthy dose of youthful bliss.
A carefree outlook could serve the Cubs well when Hammel starts Game 4 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET air time, 8 p.m. game time on TBS) against the Mets, who lead the Series, 3-0, and can advance to the World Series with just one more win. Hammel will try to help engineer what would be an historic Cubs comeback; the only team to recover from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series was the 2004 Red Sox, a club coincidentally led by current Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.
Hammel knows something about comebacks, at least in the big picture. He was part of similar franchise revivals with the Rays in 2008 and the Orioles in 2012 before re-signing this season with the Cubs, who averaged 93 losses for the last five seasons before winning 97 times in the 2015 regular season.
"I feel pretty lucky to be able to do that," Hammel said. "The thing that I've noticed the most is with these teams they've all been really young, almost to the fact where you have to think about it as the guys on the team are so young they really don't understand the magnitude of the situation that they're kind of thrown into. They're just out there playing baseball in the big leagues.
"But we have enough veteran leadership inside, and obviously [manager] Joe [Maddon] running the show, to kind of keep guys on ground and make sure that they're putting in their work and their preparation's right. But the guys are just having fun. They don't really know the pressure of the spotlight of being in the big leagues, especially in the playoffs.
"It just goes to show the character of this ballclub, even with the young guys who have never really done it before, they're still able to contribute. And we've had somebody different contribute every night for the whole season."
Hammel will try to contribute on Wednesday night in his sixth career postseason appearance and fifth start. He last pitched in Game 4 of the NL Division Series, a 6-4 Cubs victory against the Cardinals that clinched a trip to this NLCS. Hammel worked only three innings, allowing two earned runs on three hits and three walks, and the Cubs had someone up in the bullpen in the second inning.
It was not Hammel's first quick hook. He owned a 2.82 ERA through his first 18 starts of the regular season, but posted a 5.37 ERA in his final 13, with an alarming .874 opponents' OPS. Part of the problem was a left knee injury that did not cost Hammel any starts, but impacted his timing and fastball command.
"It's starting to get better," pitching coach Chris Bosio said. "The shape of the breaking ball has gotten better as he has gotten healthier."
Is Hammel healthy now? Or just good enough to pitch?
"Well, we'll find out," Bosio said. "The weather is going to be warm, so the knee's a non-factor. It's about getting his confidence."
Hammel shrugged off his quick hook in the NLDS.
"Obviously, the W is the bottom line, and whether it's seven innings or three innings, like it was for me last time, the game plan is to win," Hammel said. "We've entrusted Joe with that ability to make the decision whenever he thinks it's ready or whatever decision he needs to make at a certain time, that's his job as manager."
Is this the biggest start of his life?
"Of my life? Obviously, the deeper you get into the playoffs, yeah, I guess you could say that they're the most difficult in my life," Hammel said. "But honestly, I'm not really worried about that. I'm not thinking of it that way. It's the New York Mets versus the Cubs. I'm facing their lineup and they're facing ours. So, like I said, I'm not going to pressure myself with that."