CINCINNATI -- Seven pitches into Sunday’s game, you just knew it was going to be a good one for the Chicago Cubs. The Cincinnati Reds had flexed their muscles the night before, finally beating the visitors, 13-5, for the first time in six tries this season.
But the Cubs don't lose back-to-back games, at least not so far this year. So when fill-in leadoff man Tommy La Stella -- Joe Maddon calls him "3 a.m." -- worked the count full after starting 1-2, he had already done his job by seeing some pitches. When he doubled on the next pitch and scored on the one after -- a single by Jason Heyward -- the Cubs were off and running while Reds starter Alfredo Simon was in big trouble.
“He [La Stella] loves 1-2 counts and he loves them at 3 o'clock in the morning,” Maddon said jokingly after the Cubs' 9-0 win. “He has a lot of confidence. He has a great way about him. He understands his role perfectly. That’s a big part of it, too. Guys like him can be annoyed they never get a starting opportunity. He’s never annoyed. He just comes ready to play.”
Maddon famously said during spring training that La Stella can “wake up at 3 a.m. and hit anyone," hence the nickname. And he proved as much, doubling again in the second inning, after starting out in another 1-2 hole, then hitting a first-pitch home run in the sixth. It would have been hard to predict, but Dexter Fowler wasn’t missed at the top of the order on this day.
La Stella had help, though, in the form of Anthony Rizzo and Heyward. The former continued a home run binge, he hit his seventh and eighth, while the latter produced his first four-hit day as a Cub.
“A lot of times a guy will go unlucky for a bit and all of sudden they want to change things and they get sullen, but he did not do that,” Maddon said of Heyward. “He just continued to play it. Every day when that game begins he’s exactly the same guy, and I love that about him.”
Heyward easily could have shown frustration as line drive after line drive was finding leather just a few days earlier. But like most good hitters he took solace in that he was hitting the ball hard. Ask any of them: If they’re hitting the ball hard, that’s all that matters. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Heyward ranks fifth in the majors in line drive percentage this season at 35 percent. That’s 13 points higher than in his best season, so they were bound to fall in. Not long after Heyward was getting base knocks, Rizzo was bringing him home with blasts that left the park. Of his six hits on the road trip, he jogged the bases on five of them. He’s second in baseball with eight home runs despite a .203 batting average.
“I don’t want to give anyone a free strike,” Rizzo said of his first-pitch home run in the third inning. “It feels good. It feels really good.”
Why wouldn’t it feel good? Rizzo is part of a lethal lineup in which a low batting average isn’t a concern for even a second. And it feels even better for Cubs' starters when they’re staked to a 3-0 first-inning lead and an eight-run cushion in the third, as Jason Hammel was on Sunday. He took advantage of it with six scoreless innings, lowering his ERA after four starts to 0.75. Yes, the Hammel who blew up in the second half last year has a lower ERA than Jake Arrieta (0.87).
“That’s as well as he can throw a baseball,” Maddon said.
Hammel explained: “Things are translating. I feel good about the whole process. It’s my job to stick with it. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel because right now it’s pretty good.”
Hammel gets points for a look-in-the-mirror offseason where he committed to making changes. Those early runs don’t hurt, either.
“Getting five, six runs early again out of the offense is giving our starting staff a margin for error,” Hammel said, smiling.
It started with La Stella at the top and went all the way down to Hammel, who has a three-game hitting streak, by the way.
“I was waiting for you guys to bring it up,” Hammel laughed.
The Reds can’t be laughing. Even after outscoring the Cubs by eight runs on Saturday they were still outscored 38-14 for the series and 33-1 in the three Cubs wins. That’s getting it done.
“Coming here today, I [knew] they were ready to play,” Maddon said.