CHICAGO -- The day before his first outing after the 2016 All-Star break, Chicago Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel said we'd be able to see him eating potato chips between innings in his start against the Texas Rangers on Saturday. This was no joke. In fact, it was doctor's orders.
"Doc called me over the break and told me again today [Saturday]," Hammel explained after beating the Rangers 3-1. "Potato chips. My prescription is potato chips. For my cramps. Because they have a lot of potassium. So I focused on that over the break. I ate a lot of potato chips over the break, and it turned out OK."
Who knew doing the same thing reporters do for three hours in the press box every day would be the formula for a good performance on the mound? And this was no ordinary start. Any outing after the All-Star break automatically will be scrutinized for Hammel, as this time of year typically has been his Achilles' heel. Maybe it's been a lack of stamina or maybe it's just circumstances that have thrown him off his game. In 2014, he was traded by the Cubs while his wife was far along in her pregnancy, and he admitted the transition to Oakland in that second half wasn't very smooth. Then last year, he got injured in his final start before the All-Star break and was never the same afterward.
Whatever the reasons, he has struggled mightily throughout the second halves of his career. Add a really poor finish to his first half this season -- plus some cramping in his leg and hand -- and many doubted if Hammel would return to being a productive pitcher.
"Just go game at a time," Hammel said. "I'm not even thinking about it, [but] I knew that question was going to come up."
It'll come up until his 5.15 second-half career ERA takes a nosedive, and even then people will have their doubts. After six innings against the Rangers on Saturday, giving up just three hits and one walk while striking out seven, he's off to a good start.
"All-Star break is amazing," Hammel said. "Was able to go back and take a break with the family. See the kids, go to the beach, play some golf. Hydrate."
That last thing isn't exactly the norm for anyone on a break, but this is a new and improved Hammel. He adjusted his diet during the offseason for the very purpose of being better for this time of year. And when the cramping came, it led to hydrating, which led to potato chips.
"I didn't eat them in the dugout," Hammel explained, still smiling. "I was in the tunnel."
He can eat a steak and cotton candy between innings if it means pitching like he did on Saturday. His fastball command was as good as it's been in a while, and his off-speed stuff was as good as ever. It helps to have some defense, as the Cubs have flashed their gloves in the early going of the second half. Early in the game, Tommy La Stella started a double play on a tough short hop at third base, and then later there were the daily Javier Baez highlight-reel plays featuring his arm. Finally, Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward had to battle a tough sun on a glorious afternoon at Wrigley Field. Glorious for fans, but a few clouds could have helped Heyward in the ninth inning.
"I feel like the sun is undefeated, so you try to be at the right spot at the right time," Heyward said. "After that, just hope."
He caught two balls in the ninth fighting the sun, reminding everyone the Cubs actually have a good defense even though they weren't showing it before the All-Star break. The Cubs struggled before the break, but that mess of a time is starting to fade from memory as the best team in baseball for much of this year is starting to look like it again.
"The defense is the unheralded part of this team," Hammel said. "We've had some games where we've thrown it around a little bit, a little snowball fight. For the most part they've been right there for us."
Heyward attributed the struggles to "trying too much" during the Cubs' losing ways over the past few weeks, even citing a mistake of his own in Cincinnati. But in front of a partisan Cubs crowd, after a few good nights of sleep during the break, the Cubs are pitching and catching the way they should.
"You can go up and down the lineup and say everyone did something well for the game," manager Joe Maddon said. "Hammel was really good."