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How Jason Hammel made himself look like a key to Cubs rotation

Jason Hammel has big plans for a big role in a Cubs' playoff run this year.

MESA, Ariz. – It only takes one look to see from the outside how much Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel has been transformed since last season.

The Jake Arrieta knockoff beard he brought to camp is maybe a week or two from going the full Revenant.

“I told him he needs to grow that out for some time now,” Arrieta deadpanned. “So it’s good to see.”

The real differences in Hammel – the changes that might transform the look and depth of the Cubs’ rotation – aren’t so easy to spot at first glance.

And three weeks into spring training, Hammel said he’s getting tired of talking about it, especially the part about what led to an overhaul in the way he approached preparing for this season.

“I had to find a way to sustain results more than just three months,” said Hammel, who flirted with All-Star consideration each of the past two first halves, before tailing off in the second half both years.

A left leg injury early last July contributed to the 5.10 ERA in the second half, say teammates and staff who watched him work to avoid the disabled list and pitch through it.

But, Hammel said, “I can’t put it on the injury because there were times where the stuff was the same. It was something I had to just get through at the time, and the leash is a little bit shorter when you’re trying to win ballgames and get into a playoff game. I just didn’t get it done for whatever reason.”

That’s a reference to the quick hook manager Joe Maddon employed with Hammel, starting with an Aug. 6 game against the Giants in which Hammel was yanked with a 5-2 lead in the top of the fifth after a pair of walks to open the inning.

That was the day Maddon said he started managing games like playoff games.

It was also a day Hammel wants to forget but hasn’t been allowed to — and that might be one of the strongest motivators in his transformation.

“I’d like to just squash that one,” he said of the hook that shocked him and most watching the game at the time. “Obviously, you get fired up because you start a game, and your main job is to finish what you start. I just wasn’t doing it.”

After the season, he went to Arrieta, the Cy Young winner, and asked about his workout regimen, including pilates (which Hammel hasn’t gotten around to starting yet).

He also went outside his familiar circles to get fresh looks at his conditioning programs and pitching mechanics. And the changes started quickly, both inside and out.

“I changed up the diet, changed up the workout routine to focus more on legs and made small mechanical adjustments so that I’m using my legs — now I’m stronger there – to carry me deeper into the season,” he said. “So at the end of the year my arm will be there.”

Hammel, who pitched two scoreless innings against the Royals on Monday in his spring debut, said he dropped 20 pounds as a natural result of his new program, which included a nutritional emphasis that “made Thanksgiving really hard.”

Teammates seemed surprised and impressed by the degree of change in the leaner and more confident veteran that showed up this spring.

“I’m very, very happy for him and proud of him for doing the things he did this offseason,” Arrieta said. “He’s committed to making himself better, which in turn is going to make us a lot better as a team.”

The mechanical adjustment that keys off the healed, front leg should lead to better fastball command and the kind of effectiveness that produced a 2.86 ERA his first 17 starts last year, Maddon said.

“If he’s able to nail down early on where the fastball is going, he will take off,” Maddon said. “And then the thing would be to maintain that delivery all season.”

That was the point.

“Yeah, I slipped up last year, and I understand,” Hammel said. “I took full responsibility. I’m sure there’s some people out there in Chicago that don’t really like me. But I know how to play baseball, and I know how to pitch. It’s a matter of being able to do it consistently and finish out the year.

“I’ve taken the steps to address that.”