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Hammel on Cubs rotation: ‘We want to be the backbone’

After six scoreless innings Sunday, Jason Hammel (0.75) has a better ERA than Jake Arrieta (0.87).

CINCINNATI – The Cubs’ starting pitchers have been so good so far this season that the Cubs’ unique bullpen is no longer so unique. But it is very well rested.

When Jason Hammel pitched another six scoreless innings for the Cubs in Sunday’s 9-0 victory over the Reds, it boosted the rotation’s major-league-leading innings total to 125 2/3, or just over 6.6 per start.

How good is the quality to go with that quantity? The rotation’s 2.36 ERA ranks second to the Nationals in the majors, and Hammel became the third Cub to win his first three decisions this year – a franchise first.

And for all the attention Jake Arrieta (0.87 ERA) gets for his extended stretch of dominant pitching, Hammel (0.75) has the staff’s best ERA.

“That’s as well as he can throw a baseball,” manager Joe Maddon said of Hammel on Sunday.

“The starting staff, we want to be the backbone,” said Hammel, who allowed just three singles and two walks behind a fastball-slider attack. “We want to be that foundation.”

What all this starting pitching has meant for an eight-man bullpen unique for its four long men/spot starters is a good-news, not-as-good news scenario. None of those four – who represent the Cubs’ starting depth through nine spots – are stretched out anymore after preparing in the spring for multiple-inning appearances.

No Cub reliever has thrown more than 1 1/3 innings so far.

“We thought about that coming out of camp that we’d have to keep guys stretched out,” Maddon said. “But in this particular moment, it’s just been our plight and we’ve got that good of starting pitching. And it’s a good plight to have right now.”

On the other hand, a relatively stress-free month could be a boon for what’s typically the most workload-sensitive position area on any baseball team.

For example, Hector Rondon had thrown just 47 pitches – with only one appearance in the previous 12 days – when he finished off Sunday’s game with a 1-2-3 ninth just to get needed work.

“I feel like last year we kind of burned out our bullpen early on a little bit,” said starter Jon Lester (1.98 ERA). “For us to save our bullpen early on when we need them in July and August and September, hopefully we’ll see the rewards of that down the line.”


La Stellar

Tommy La Stella, making just his fourth start of the season, and batting leadoff delivered doubles and runs scored in his first two at-bats, then homered leading off the sixth.

Maddon praised La Stella’s ability to handle his bench role and know he’s going right back to pinch-hit duty after Sunday’s big game.

“Whatever we need,” La Stella said. “I mean, winning’s the name of the game here. It’s been long enough for this organization, so whatever we’ve got to do to bring home the championship I’m all for it.”

Notes: After a 0-for-9 start to the road trip, Jason Heyward went 10-for-20 with five walks and four RBIs – including four hits and three RBIs Sunday. … Four of Addison Russell‘s nine walks this season have come in his last eight plate appearances.