Pitch Perfect: Pen’s Pristine Performance Preserves Prize

Veiled in my headline-making, I am not. The Cubs bullpen, on the other hand, they had a few tricks up their respective sleeves Monday afternoon. I’d say they made Dodger baserunners disappear, but that’s not quite accurate. No, the sleight of hand employed by the four members of the relief corps called upon to go 7 innings was more about fooling hitters at the plate and sending them back to the visitors’ dugout wondering exactly what they’d just seen.

In a scene that had fans flashing back to last season, Jason Hammel came up lame during his warm-up for the 3rd inning. The pitcher reached for the back of his leg and attempted in vain to work out an apparent cramp, but Joe Maddon wasn’t taking any chances given the warm conditions. All parties are convinced that this is nothing more than a garden variety issue and that it doesn’t appear as though Hammel’s next start is in jeopardy.

“At this particular moment, we think he’ll be fine for his next start,” Maddon told reporters after the game.

“Obviously, we’ll wait and see how it feels,” Hammel explained. “I’m very optimistic that it was just a cramp. It would’ve taken six hours to finish the game if I stayed in there.”

I guess the magic act really got going with the starter, who almost inadvertently turned himself into Steve Trachsel. Joking aside, putting Hammel and hammy in the same sentence is enough to cramp a few stomachs after what happened down the stretch following the pitcher’s leg injury last season. This, though, appears to be wholly unrelated and isn’t cause for concern. Unless you want to freak out, in which case you can feel free to do so.

Prior to his exit, Hammel looked like he was on top of his game. After striking out the first two batters he faced, he allowed a soft single to Justin Turner that probably only fell as the result of a miscommunication between Jason Heyward in center and Ben Zobrist in right. Hammel then walked Adrian Gonzalez to give the Dodgers their last baserunner of the afternoon.

Travis Wood came in for Hammel in the 3rd and was absolutely dominant for 4 innings, striking out four of the 12 batters he faced. The efficiency with which he worked was something to behold, as Wood needed only 43 pitches to get the Cubs to the 7th inning and the back end of the pen. Justin Grimm threw only 13 pitches, Pedro Strop 10, and Hector Rondon 13 to notch a total of four more K’s and nail down the win.

As a group, the pen averaged just over 11 pitches per inning and was remarkably consistent in how it got those outs. If it sounds as though I’m dehumanizing the effort a bit, it’s because the collective operated like a machine. With eight outs via strikes, seven via ground balls, and six via flies/liners, the Dodgers were never able to get even the slightest bit of momentum. Much of that success came from attacking hitters early, only getting to two (five) or three (one) balls on Dodger hitters six times.

In case you were wondering, Monday’s pristine effort was the first time in 99 years that a bullpen had pitched at least 7 perfect innings. According to Elias, the last such occurrence was on 6/23/1917 in Boston, when Ernie Shore retired 26 straight batters after the starting pitcher was ejected. That starter: George Herman Ruth.

It’s not exactly how Maddon would have drawn it up heading into the game, but knowing that Jake Arrieta could very well throw another no-hitter against the Dodgers the following day afforded him a bit of leeway in his decision-making. Hammel’s no stranger to quick hooks and I’d imagine he would have liked to have remained in the game Monday as well. At the same time, he no doubt has heard that thing about discretion being the better part of valor.

And there’s also the thing about the bullpen putting up 7 perfect innings in relief, which kinda eliminates any real argument that pulling the starter was the wrong move. This obviously can’t become a trend though, so the Cubs are going to need Hammel to be good to go moving forward. It appeared to my unqualified eye that he just stepped a little funny and had the muscle seize up on him as a result. I think we’ve all been there before and this isn’t an uncommon occurrence, even among finely-tuned professional athletes.

You never want to have to rely on your bullpen for more than half the game because it likely means that something has gone wrong. Everything went right for the Cubs on Memorial Day, it’s just not a scene you want to be forced to replay. Well, unless you literally want to replay the video above.

Hammel’s next scheduled start is Saturday against the Diamondbacks, and I expect we’ll see him out there with no limitations or concerns as the Cubs go for their eleventh straight win.

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