KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jon Lester carried the Cubs’ starting rotation for half the season without any consistent production from the rest of the vaunted group.
Now it might be Cole Hamels’ turn.
“That’s what I’m here for,” Hamels said after working around traffic for six rain-interrupted innings to beat the Royals 3-1 in the opener of a three-game interleague series Monday night at Kauffman Stadium.
Acquired last week in a trade to address issues with the rotation, Hamels didn’t arrive a moment too soon — with Lester slumping, Yu Darvish still on the disabled list and Tyler Chatwood relegated to the bullpen.
So if the Cubs need to lean on him disproportionately at least for a while to keep their pitching staff functional? That’s what he’s here for.
“That’s always the belief that I’ve always had, every season — it’s to go out there and be a workhorse,” Hamels said. “To gain momentum or to continue winning streaks or to stop losing streaks. That’s the mentality that I was taught by probably some of the best pitchers in the game.”
Hamels, who has had teammates such as Cliff Lee, Jamie Moyer and Roy Halladay in his career, has allowed just one earned run in 11 innings as a Cub in victories over the Pirates and Royals.
“He’s who he is, man,” marveled Javy Baez, who did the rest when he homered for the go-ahead run in the sixth, doubled home an insurance run in the eight and — playing third base — saved a run in the second with a diving play behind the bag.
While Baez continued his campaign for National League MVP honors, Hamels reminded anybody who could take their eyes off Baez for a moment how the Cubs made their deep playoff runs the last three years — and what it will take to get back to October.
“These five starters need to be prominent for us to really get where we want to get to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Of course, we’re looking for more length out of the starters.
“If somebody was banged up or throwing too many pitches or innings to this point, I’d have a concern, but they haven’t. So moving forward, I think our guys are really good, and I want to believe we’re going to find that magic potion there at some point.”
For now, that comes in a bottle marked “Hamels.”
The struggling veteran left-hander the team was able to acquire at the trade deadline looks more critical than ever for the Cubs’ hopes of surviving a crowded field of playoff contenders in the NL.
One night after Lester had another rough outing in a loss to the last-place Padres, Hamels didn’t have the same kind of swing-and-miss stuff as he did in his nine-strikeout debut for the Cubs last week.
But he used a familiar pitcher-friendly ballpark and a fastball-curveball combination to manage a seven-single, one-walk start into a victory.
For one night, it helped the Cubs forget about Lester’s 6.42 ERA in his last eight starts — since going 9-2 with a 2.10 ERA in his first 15. And the 4.14 rotation ERA that was the worst among NL teams in playoff position entering the night.
“I don’t want to lay this all on Cole, not at all,” Maddon said. “He’s one-fifth of the rotation right now. It’s about everybody.”
But when it comes to pitching, it might be about Hamels a little more than the rest right now.
“It’s a matter of just going out there and being myself,” Hamels said. “I know I do need to pitch a little bit deeper into the ballgame. That’s obviously the plan.
“And everybody else is going to really fall in line with what they’ve been doing all year.”