The Reds might not be going away anytime soon in the National League Central.
But one turn through the rotation after the All-Star break, the Cubs at least have reason to believe their own starting pitching won’t, either.
The Cubs’ rotation, which has been the backbone of their four-year playoff run, has five consecutive quality starts for the first time this season, which included fill-in starter Alec Mills on Tuesday night.
Mills didn’t get the win — that had to wait until Kyle Schwarber’s 10th-inning, opposite-field home run off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias gave the Cubs a 4-3 victory. It was Schwarber’s first career walk-off hit.
“Something you always want to check off your bucket list,” Schwarber said of the basket shot.
But without the kind of starting pitching the Cubs have had down the stretch the last few years — which might finally be coming together this season — it’s hard to imagine shaking the Reds and the rest of the clumped-up National League Central, much less an NL playoff field in October.
Because as anyone in baseball knows, when it comes to winning, it’s the pitching, stupid.
Mills, who survived an ugly first inning to pitch scoreless baseball the rest of his six-inning start, was making his first big-league start since Aug. 29 in place of injured left-hander Cole Hamels (left oblique).
Mills said he has “no idea” when he’ll pitch again. Using scheduled days off to manipulate the rotation, the Cubs might need to replace Hamels next week in San Francisco.
And if Hamels’ rehab math works out, that might be all they’ll need before one of the hottest starters in baseball in June (1.22 ERA) is ready to rejoin the group. It would be well ahead of expectations.
Hamels fared well enough the day after a second throwing session that he’s ramping up to his first session from a mound Wednesday since suffering a left oblique strain
He laid out a scenario that could have him back in a game the next time his spot figures to come up after next week: Aug. 3 against the Brewers.
“I’ve always based it on the amount of days I don’t throw or do anything, I need those days [to build back up] plus five days for the start [prep work],” said Hamels, who was shut down 14 days from the time of the injury until starting his rehab program Friday. “I’d say 20 would be good enough.”
That would be Aug. 1, depending on how many minor-league rehab starts the Cubs determine he needs.
“I’m going to have to [have at least one start],” he said. “I hate it, but I know it’s the smart thing to do.”
Hamels has been symptom-free since before the All-Star break.
“It’s better than two years ago when I had it,” Hamels said of the more severe oblique tear he suffered on the right side that kept him out two months in 2017.
At least as big as Hamels executing his upbeat timeline would be the long-promised resurrection of Yu Darvish, who said his best start as a Cub on Friday was no coincidence.
Darvish, who twice in May snapped Cubs’ quality-starts streaks at four, hasn’t had back-to-back quality starts in 27 starts as a Cub.
But on the eve of Wednesday’s start against the Reds, he also said he has never felt as good as he does now, in large part because he finally has begun to trust the health of his surgically repaired elbow enough that he can locate his fastball to any hitter in any count.
That led to command of seven pitches in six scoreless innings against the Pirates on Friday.
“The first couple of months I couldn’t throw strikes, so I had to throw a cutter every time, because I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “But now I have my fastball and my curveball. And a slider and changeup — everything right now.
“Everything’s together right now.”