MILWAUKEE – The first thing Joe Maddon said to Dexter Fowler when he showed up in the Cubs’ clubhouse Friday ready to come off the disabled list was, naturally, “You go, we go.”
It’s been a four-word ritual for the pair whenever Fowler has headed to the plate since the Cubs’ leadoff hitter joined the club last year.
And it looked prophetic enough Friday that it might wind up on a Maddon T-shirt by next week – Fowler hitting a home run and a two-run double on his first two swings since missing a month with a hamstring injury.
He finished with three hits and a walk in the Cubs’ 5-2 victory over the Brewers at Miller Park.
“It’s really apparent how significant he is for us,” Maddon said.
The Cubs went 11-17 while Fowler was on the disabled list, their three-week slump to the All-Star break coinciding almost precisely with his absence and the leadoff-man-a-day patch job Maddon employed.
“I was just happy to be back with the guys,” said Fowler, who picked up where his All-Star first half left off – seeing 14 pitches in his first three plate appearances, 10 called balls, two called strikes and the two others producing six total bases.
“Welcome back, Dex,” said starting pitcher Jason Hammel (9-5). “He comes right back in and asserts himself.”
Fowler said his hamstring “felt good” after handling two chances in the field and spending so much time on the bases. He said he’s ready to go right back into an everyday schedule without extra rest early.
“He’s an asset for us at the top of the lineup,” said Hammel, who pitched to one batter in the sixth – giving up a double – before turning the game over to powerful rookie Carl Edwards Jr.
If Fowler’s an asset, the Hammel-to-Edwards sequence might have underscored how much more significant the shape of the Cubs’ pitching staff – and fitness of it – might be as the Cubs’ approach October.
For example, as much as Fowler’s absence hurt the Cubs during their 6-15 skid into the break, the starting rotation’s woes hurt worse: its 6.04 ERA countering the 5.0 runs per game the team scored during the stretch.
During the 5-2 start post-break, the starters have gone 5-1 with a 1.76 ERA.
“Yeah, they don’t even need me,” Fowler joked before the game.
He won’t find anybody in the clubhouse to agree with that.
But the continued health of the starting staff and the reshaping of the bullpen through the Aug. 1 trade deadline is likely to have more impact on how many games the Cubs play after September.
That’s why the other addition Friday – lefty reliever Mike Montgomery joining the team after Wednesday’s trade from Seattle – and Edwards’ performance in the sixth created as much buzz in the clubhouse before and after the game, respectively.
“If you get like two months with a guy like that in advance of the playoffs, talking about Montgomery, it could really make a huge difference,” said manager Joe Maddon of the 6-foot-5 power pitcher, who produced a 2.15 ERA in 30 relief appearances for the Mariners.
If the Cubs don’t add another big arm for the pen before the deadline, Montgomery and Edwards could be two of the more important pitchers to watch the final two months of the season.
On this night, Edwards inherited the runner at second with nobody out in a 4-2 game in the sixth and proceeded to strand him at third after facing Ryan Braun (groundout), Jonathan Lucroy (strikeout) and Chris Carter (strikeout).
“Turning point in the game,” said Maddon, who has groomed Edwards into a more significant “middle-innings closer” role to this point and sees potentially bigger things for him in the future.
“I just felt comfortable pretty much,” said Edwards, who lowered his ERA to 1.93 with 16 strikeouts and four walks in 14 innings since he was recalled last month. “when I went out there and got the first guy to ground out, I said, `All right you’re not finished.’ And then two outs, I still told myself, `Hey, guy on third, you’re not finished; make your pitches.’ And that’s what I did.”