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Hammel beats Pirates in strong response to weekend hook

Man on a mission: Jason Hammel was in command for much of his six-inning bounce-back start Wednesday against the Pirates.

Whether Jason Hammel is pitching the rest of the season for a chance at a playoff start, he certainly looked like a man with a purpose Wednesday night – just four days after getting hacked off by his manager’s early hook.

Moved up a day in the rotation because of that mere 39-pitch start in Los Angeles, Hammel pitched six strong innings at Wrigley Field to beat the Pirates 6-5 and complete a three-game sweep of the division rivals.

‘Yeah, I wanted to get back out there,” Hammel (14-7) said after handing off a 5-1 lead to the bullpen. “The last one didn’t sit well with me. So far, so good.”

Hammel, who said he added liberal use of his changeup to make a difference on a night he didn’t have his best slider, stranded runners at third in the second and fourth innings as he nursed a 1-0 lead through the top of the fourth and a 2-0 lead into the fifth before giving up a run.

“Outstanding,” manager Joe Maddon said, adding he saw a seven- or eight-inning start from Hammel until that three-walk fifth.

Kris Bryant added a 36th home run to his growing MVP case for the first-inning lead, and he singled leading off the fourth and scored – as the Cubs went 22-6 in August, their best August since 1932 (also 22-6). It was their highest win total for any month since 1945 (22-10 in September).

And shortstop Addison Russell turned in another play for the year-end highlights – sprinting near the line in left field for a sliding catch to end the seventh with the bases loaded.

As the Cubs entered September with a season-high 15-game division lead and a magic number of just 16 for clinching, the big question for the start of October is nearing fast:

Who makes the Cubs’ playoff rotation – and in what order will they line up as the team’s postseason run begins Oct. 7 at Wrigley Field.

Veteran John Lackey, a veteran of two World Series-clinching starts, is expected to return from the disabled list to start Sunday against the Giants. And if his shoulder stays healthy down the stretch, he’s all but certain to be in the playoff rotation.

The Cubs have another three starters who are among the top Cy Young candidates entering the final month, including the major-league ERA leader in Kyle Hendricks and the reigning National League Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta.

And Jon Lester, one of the steadiest starters in the rotation all year, also is the only other one with as many World Series rings as Lackey.

Where does that leave Hamel? What does he have to do to merit a starting role in the postseason?

“Stay healthy, and we’ll see what happens,” manager Joe Maddon said before Wednesday’s start. “I want to get to the playoffs first of all. I’m not going to say anything until that day actually occurs. I don’t bet the come.”

Until a pair of rough outings during the recent road trip west, Hammel was the hottest starter out of the All-Star break – 6-0 with a 0.95 ERA in his first six post-break starts.

By Saturday, he was yanked in the third inning of a 3-1 game at Dodger Stadium, visibly upset and angry enough to meet behind closed doors with Maddon afterward.

“That’s in the rear-view mirror now. Joe and I talked it out,” he said. “There’s no room for off-the-field BS or disagreements or holding a grudge. We’re grown men. We solved it.

“To carry something like that would really mess up something special we’ve got going on right now.”

Sun-Times Cubs rotation power rankings

The Cubs rotation leads the majors (2.89) by more than 60 ERA points – and finished August 17-2 with a 2.16 ERA for the month. At this rate, the team’s toughest call of the year will be deciding on a playoff rotation. Here’s how the starters rank today:

  • 1. Kyle Hendricks (13-7, 2.09): So nasty right now Rizzo “can’t say the word”
  • 2. Jon Lester (14-4, 2.70): ICYMI: He threw out a guy on the bases in SD
  • 3. Jake Arrieta (16-5, 2.84): Only 3rd? “Open your [expletive] eyes”
  • 4. Jason Hammel (14-7, 3.14): On mission after 39-pitch “side day” in LA?
  • 5. Mike Montgomery (0-0, 3.86): Forcing Cubs to consider 6-man rotation
  • 6. Trevor Cahill (0-0, 0.00): Most consistent starter since 8/16 (0 ER/0 GS)

NR: John Lackey (9-7, 3.41, on DL), Adam Warren (0-0, 1.80, traded to Yankees), Brian Matusz (0-0, 18.00, back in minors). Note: All stats for part-time starters are for Cubs starts only.