LOS ANGELES – Even from the upper levels of Dodger Stadium, inside the Vin Scully Press Box, you didn’t need binoculars or a lip reader to tell that Jason Hammel wanted nothing to do with Joe Maddon.
Not this early on Saturday afternoon, not when the veteran Cubs pitcher came into a possible playoff preview with a 13-6 record and a 3.07 ERA. An animated Hammel gestured toward home plate and walked off the mound in the middle of the third inning, continuing a sometimes awkward/usually productive relationship with the star manager that dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays.
No, Hammel doesn’t get much latitude, even during his 11th year in the big leagues and a strong individual season that has so far answered the questions about a second-half fade.
But Maddon walked out from the dugout with two runners on, one out and Adrian Gonzalez up next, trying to extend a 3-1 lead with one big swing. Maddon summoned Rob Zastryzny from the bullpen and watched the rookie lefty get two groundball outs.
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
The move worked, even during a 3-2 loss, as Zastryzny looked extremely impressive, retiring 11 of the 12 batters he faced, eight days after getting called up from Triple-A Iowa and making his big-league debut, showing that he could become an X-factor for October.
No, Hammel didn’t look all that sharp against a tough Los Angeles lineup, giving up five hits to the 12 batters he faced, including a first-inning homer to Corey Seager and three consecutive hits to begin the third.
But Hammel is also a respected teammate who helped the Cubs transform into a playoff team last year and build baseball’s top-performing rotation this season.
Who cares? The Cubs are still 36 games over .500 and began the day with huge leads over the St. Louis Cardinals (14) and Pittsburgh Pirates (16.5) in a watered-down division.
Well, Hammel in particular is a guy who feeds off confidence and positive reinforcement. The Cubs might need him in October, especially if John Lackey (shoulder) experiences a setback before coming off the disabled list or another starter gets hurt down the stretch.
LOS ANGELES – The Cubs had Julio Urias and the Los Angeles Dodgers on the ropes, but couldn’t knock out the young lefty from Mexico who’s drawn comparisons to franchise icon Fernando Valenzuela.
Saturday afternoon began with Dexter Fowler drawing a leadoff walk at Dodger Stadium and MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hitting back-to-back singles into right field.
Instead of going for the jugular, cleanup hitter Ben Zobrist dropped a sacrifice bunt back to Urias, who then struck out Addison Russell and Jorge Soler looking to keep it a 1-0 game.
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
Urias – who pitched at four different minor-league levels last season and only turned 20 this month – settled down against the best team in baseball to earn the win in a 3-2 victory in front of 49,522.
Urias lasted through the sixth inning, allowing no more runs and finishing with eight strikeouts, helping rescue a first-place team that’s used 14 different starting pitchers and put a major-league record-tying 27 players on the disabled list.
LOS ANGELES – To get a better idea why Theo Epstein’s front office invested $184 million in Jason Heyward, and how Cubs manager Joe Maddon thinks through the lineup, just listen to Kris Bryant.
The National League’s leading MVP candidate explained Heyward’s value to the best team in baseball late Friday night at Dodger Stadium after blasting his 34th and 35th home runs during a 10-inning comeback victory.
Bryant, a particularly gracious teammate, credited Heyward for sparking the ninth-inning rally against Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen, hitting a leadoff double and taking advantage of a misplayed strike three and a wild pitch to score the game-tying run.
“We all know what he can do at the plate,” Bryant said. “Everybody knows what he can do in the field. He’s a huge asset to this team. If it wasn’t for him getting us started there, we wouldn’t have won the game. Simple as that.
“Heads-up base-running (is) something that you really can’t teach. And he has it. It’s just awesome to see him come out and compete every day.
“It inspires me. It makes me want to be like him, always keeping your head up, always being a great teammate, being so positive. I can’t say enough about him.”
Maybe a road trip that began with Heyward getting a mental break and sitting through three games at Coors Field becomes a turning point in a poor offensive season (.227 average/.626 OPS). In his first game back after that reboot, Heyward homered against the San Diego Padres, hitting his first one in almost a month.
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
After sitting against Los Angeles lefty Julio Urias – with Maddon wanting to get Jorge Soler involved – Heyward came off the bench to deliver a pinch-hit RBI single off reliever Pedro Baez in the seventh inning of Saturday afternoon’s 3-2 loss at Dodger Stadium.
“He’s not hit to his level yet this year, but he plays a significant game on a nightly basis,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t cry about things. He doesn’t make excuses. He shows up and he plays. That’s why I say he’s a winner.
“The hitting’s going to be there. I’m telling you it’s going to be there. And it’s going to be there at the right time this year – and for years to come.
“He’s just had a tough moment and he’s been digging himself out of a hole all year at the plate. But every place else, he’s among the best in the game right now.”
That’s why the Cubs can sacrifice a measure of offense in the playoffs and still thrive with Heyward’s Gold Glove defense, speed and instincts.
“Jason does set a great example daily,” Maddon said. “Because a lot of guys going through that moment would not be the teammate that he is and pick up everybody else.
“A lot of times when guys aren’t hitting, they go, ‘Oh, my self-worth goes down. Should I pop off? Should I say something?’ Guys who have carried their batting average on their sleeve and then react accordingly – that’s not good. Just be who you are. He has a lot to bring on a daily basis, even if he’s not 3-for-4.”
The Cubs also remember Heyward as a tough out and a dynamic lineup presence for the St. Louis Cardinals during last year’s playoffs. And everyone will forget the numbers from the regular season if Heyward performs in the postseason.
“Once October starts,” Heyward said, “you got to be on. That’s the way we’re trying to look at it.”