Zambrano trade a huge win for Cubs

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Zambrano trade a huge win for Cubs

With the trade of Carlos Zambrano to the Miami Marlins now done, pending physicals, it looks to be a huge win for the Cubs and the new regime of Theo Epstein. While I am not sure that Chris Volstad will ever approach the career that Zambrano had in a Cubs uniform, it really doesnt matter how well he pitches as long as he is a solid teammate and not a divisive influence in the clubhouse. Simply getting Zambrano out of Wrigley Field is a tremendous move by the new Cubs regime.

Zambrano was blessed with tremendous ability, and at the start of his Cubs career he looked to be a developing force in the rotation. As his career moved along he showed a great fastball and outstanding movement on a variety of pitches and it was that potential that earned him a 91.5 million contract extension.

However, with the contract came a new level of expectations from the team and the fan base and Zambrano collapsed under the weight of those expectations. He was a negative influence on the team with multiple incidents that alienated his teammates and a succession of managers and coaches and after he was ejected in August in a game in Atlanta and told clubhouse personnel that he was retiring his fate was sealed.

Zambrano will go down in Cubs history as a player with incredible potential who never reached the level of success that he should have because of his inability to control his emotions. Epstein and Jed Hoyer had no choice today when they traded Big Z to the Marlins, where he will be reunited with his friend and Venezuelan countryman Ozzie Guillen. Ozzie thinks that a change of scenery and his guiding hand will turn Big Z back into the pitcher that he once was.

After watching Zambrano for his entire career I am not sure Ozzie realizes just what he is getting himself into. Declining skills and an explosive personality could be a combustible combination in Miami.

Cubs: Can Jason Hammel sustain All-Star-level performance this time?

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Cubs: Can Jason Hammel sustain All-Star-level performance this time?

ST. LOUIS — Jason Hammel is pitching like an All-Star again — the way he did as a sign-and-flip guy in 2014 and a rotation anchor for last year’s playoff team — so the question for the Cubs now becomes: Is this sustainable?

Hammel doesn’t look at it that way, not after clearing his head during the offseason, altering his training program and refocusing for a World Series contender. He wants more.

Hammel 2.0 handled the St. Louis Cardinals during Tuesday night’s 12-3 victory at Busch Stadium, working into the eighth inning for the first time this year, allowing only one run and tying his season-high pitch count (103).

“I do feel different,” said Hammel (6-1, 2.17 ERA). “I’m definitely not happy with the walks. I know I can do better, as long as I clean that up. I still think the timing’s off with the delivery that I’ve adapted to now.

“But I’m not thinking that far down the road right now. I’m just going game by game, pitch by pitch. I think that’s going to be the right mentality for me. Instead of: ‘Don’t falter.’

“I’m not a negative thinker anymore. I’m just going to stay positive. We’re going to stay here and now and be present.”

Hammel described his outing as “effectively wild” and joked about his second three-game hitting streak: “Who’s counting?” It also helped that the Cubs built a six-run lead before he threw his first pitch, so manager Joe Maddon wouldn’t be so quick to turn the game over to the bullpen.

Hammel excelled for the Cubs in 2014, going 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA in his first 17 starts before getting packaged with Jeff Samardzija in the Addison Russell blockbuster trade with the Oakland A’s. But Hammel found it difficult to uproot his family midseason and struggled to make a quick adjustment to Oakland, finishing at 2-6 with a 4.26 ERA in the American League.

Hammel got off to another hot start last season (2.86 ERA in 103-plus innings) before a leg injury messed with his mechanics and led to a breakdown after the All-Star break (5.10 ERA in 67 innings).

“I believe it’s sustainable, absolutely,” Maddon said. “The biggest thing, again, is if he knows where his fastball is going, he will pitch deeply into a lot of games, because his ball’s got great movement on it. So there’s a lot of mishits, and also his breaking ball is really good.”

Hammel understands his importance to this team, how carrying this momentum all the way through to the finish line would be huge for the 2016 Cubs.

“I don’t see why not,” catcher David Ross said. “He was our best starter last year in the first half. That says a lot with the group that’s in this room.

“He does a good job of keeping those guys off-balance and making the pitches when he needs to. He just looks a lot more sound mechanically. Even when he gets out of whack, he finds his way back into the count.”

They're back: Cubs lineup bludgeons Cardinals

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They're back: Cubs lineup bludgeons Cardinals

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs didn’t need any mimes, magicians or mariachi bands in the clubhouse. Joe Maddon didn’t have to reach into his bag of tricks to deflect attention away from his team’s offensive struggles or deflate whatever pressure his young hitters might have been feeling.

The Cubs showed why they have the best record in baseball and status as World Series favorites, jumping Michael Wacha for six runs in the first inning of a 12-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.

The Cubs (30-14) finished with 15 hits, and if Maddon didn’t call this shot, the manager certainly alluded to it during his pregame media session when asked which hitter he thinks opponents focus on or worry about the most.

“It’s hard to name one guy,” Maddon said. “I’m sure they’re concerned about (Jorge) Soler hitting .190-something, just knowing that at any moment he could just break out. If I were to look at our lineup, I’d be uncomfortable all the way down (with) the way David Ross is hitting right now. There’s no comfortable break in our lineup.

“It’s a definite American League East lineup from back in the day.”

That’s the entire point for this franchise, how Theo Epstein’s front office kept betting on hitters in the draft, trades and free agency, trying to build a bigger, better version of those Boston Red Sox teams that bludgeoned opponents.

Within that first-inning ambush, Soler drew a bases-loaded walk that forced in a run and Ross drove a ball that soared over Randal Grichuk’s head and deflected off the center fielder’s outstretched glove for a two-out, two-run double. Even good-hitting pitcher Jason Hammel chipped in with another two-run double from the No. 9 spot.

“We don’t hit the panic button when we don’t score runs — or (when) we don’t pitch,” Hammel said. “It’s part of the whole ebb and flow of the season. We’re not robots. We can’t do it all the time.

“You’re going to run into some good teams, too. Overall, we never panic.”

Soler knocked out Wacha — a pitcher the Cubs beat in the playoffs last year — in the fifth inning with a two-run homer that had 100-mph exit velocity and sailed 406 feet over the center-field fence. The Cubs ended a three-game losing streak — the first one this season — and changed the subject with fans on Twitter and for the media wondering what happened to this team.

“It’s hard to keep us down for too long,” said Ross, who notched his 500th career hit in his 15th big-league season. “These guys are very talented, and they’ve continued to grind at-bats. Sometimes it’s just (that) hitting’s hard. Plain and simple, it’s not easy to hit.”

The Cardinals (24-22) will get that reminder on Wednesday afternoon facing Jake Arrieta, a reigning Cy Young Award winner who’s 24-1 with a 0.99 ERA in his last 29 regular-season starts. No one needs to tell the Cubs to R-E-L-A-X.

“We’ve gone through a tough time recently,” Maddon said. “Believe me, man, it happens to everybody. It doesn’t concern me. I’m not distraught over it. It’s just a part of our game. But I like our names. I like our lineup a lot. Our boys will put up some huge numbers by the end of the season.”

'The butterfly effect' from Jason Heyward's return to Cubs lineup

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'The butterfly effect' from Jason Heyward's return to Cubs lineup

ST. LOUIS — Jason Heyward owns three Gold Gloves, gets on base 35 percent of the time and allows Cubs manager Joe Maddon to hit Ben Zobrist behind Anthony Rizzo. Even if the offensive numbers never match the external expectations for a $184 million player, Heyward’s presence matters.

"That’s the butterfly effect," Maddon said before Heyward’s return to the lineup in Tuesday’s 12-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. "When they flutter their wings, something else occurs that’s not noticeable to the naked eye.

"It happens in Russia. It happens in '11/22/63.' So there are all these different moments that occur that we don’t really recognize because we only see the obvious."

Heyward’s absence didn’t fully explain the offensive regression or a three-game losing streak, and it might not have changed a 1-0 loss to San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner on "Sunday Night Baseball."

But after watching Friday’s jaw-dropping catch and headfirst crash into the AT&T Park wall, general manager Jed Hoyer admitted it felt like the Cubs dodged a bullet. Heyward somehow walked away with only a bruised right side at a time when the Cubs couldn’t afford to lose another corner outfielder.

"He’s not hitting .300, so obviously people think that he’s not playing well, which is so far from the truth," Maddon said. "He makes a great impact just by his presence as a great defender. He gets on base a lot. And then he permits us to reorganize the batting order."

Heyward went 0-for-5 with a walk and two strikeouts and moved a runner over to third base with a groundball to the right side of the infield during that six-run first inning. He’s now hitting .218 with one home run through 171 plate appearances and a sub-.600 OPS.

Heyward had been feeling like he was getting his timing down again — and working through a nagging wrist issue — so we’ll see what the extra rest meant for the butterfly effect.

"Sometimes the game’s going to get you," Heyward said. "You say 'turn it around,' but we’re doing OK. Right now, we’re not by any means complacent, but it’s a part of the season. You’re going to go through ups and downs. You’re going to go through stretches where the other team just has a better night than you do."