PITTSBURGH — Chris Archer, the most coveted pitcher traded at Tuesday’s MLB deadline, was spotted in the Pirates’ dugout in the middle of the first inning of Wednesday’s game against the Cubs — his image immediately put across the giant video board in left field.
It drew the loudest cheer of the night from the sparse crowd, prompting a curtain call for the All-Star starter the Pirates hope will be the key to a two-month sprint that catches the Cubs.
Until then, the Cubs own the National League Central, remaining in first place with Wednesday’s 9-2 victory and moving seven games ahead of the third-place Pirates.
And while Archer got the curtain call — and a doff of the cap from former Rays manager Joe Maddon — it was the Cubs’ new guy, Cole Hamels, who owned this night.
Hamels, the former Phillies and Rangers ace who has struggled for much of the past two seasons, struck out nine without allowing an earned run in five innings in his Cubs debut to set the tone for his new team.
“This is why we put in all the time in the offseason working out and in spring training, to get an opportunity to win a championship,” said Hamels, who was acquired from the last-place Rangers late last week. “Sometimes when you’re not on a team that is going that direction, it’s nice to be able to kind of jump and then be in that situation.
“Being in that scenario, it’s always going to be energetic, and your focus kind of zones in a little bit more.”
That was the Cubs’ vision in acquiring the playoff-tested 34-year-old to help them survive another pennant drive after four months of problems with their starting pitching.
“He can be a tremendous difference maker for us,” Maddon said.
But not because he was pitching like a frontline, hotly pursued trade chip at the deadline.
The Cubs know they aren’t getting the Hamels who won World Series MVP honors for the Phillies against Maddon’s Rays in 2008.
“I’m really betting on the person,” team president Theo Epstein said after getting Hamels for Eddie Butler and minor leaguers.
“You acquire somebody in the middle of a pennant race in a market like Chicago, I think you have to pay attention to makeup,” Epstein said, “because the first time they walk onto the mound at Wrigley and they have the hopes of 24 teammates on them and the whole organization and 45,000 people and the huge market — you want someone who feels good about that opportunity and who’s going to embrace it and knows they can rise to the challenge.”
Eight years since his last playoff win, two years since his last All-Star selection and nine days since he threw his last pitch, Hamels took the mound with a four-run lead after a big Cubs first aided by two Pirates errors.
Despite shaky command of his mid-90s fastball, he didn’t allow a hit after the first inning. And his breaking ball and changeup danced and tantalized enough that he got swings and misses for eight of his nine strikeouts.
“He’s definitely not going to be influenced or overwhelmed by anything, I don’t think,” Maddon said. “He’s kind of the right fit regarding ability, personality, demeanor and experience level.”
The Cubs and Hamels hope to see six innings more often than five going forward.
“It’s just good being able to kind of get it out of the way,” said Hamels. “You want to be able to win a game for your new team. And the guys have been playing outstanding baseball all season. You just want to get in the mix.”