Jason Hammel outduels Cubs' first choice

CHICAGO -- Throwing with a bruise on his hand nearly as big as a golf ball, Chicago Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel outpitched Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees on Tuesday well aware that Tanaka was the Cubs’ first choice as a free-agent signing this past offseason.

Maybe the Cubs won in losing out on Tanaka, as Hammel’s 5-2 record after 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball isn’t far from Tanaka’s 6-1 mark. The Cubs righty beat the Yankees ace, handing him his first loss in 43 starts.

“He’s an outstanding pitcher,” Hammel said of Tanaka after the game. “He threw the ball really well. It could have been a short night, but I was able to get through it.”

Hammel almost left the game after leadoff hitter Brett Gardner hit a ball back at him -- and off the top of his pitching hand. The bruise got bigger as the game went on, but Hammel got better as he got used to pitching with it.

“We were very fortunate the ball struck him on the back of the hand,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said.

After getting hit, Hammel threw his first warm-up pitch to the backstop. Renteria almost went to the bullpen, but the Cubs’ biggest surprise of 2014 was having none of it.

“I got a good little egg on there,” Hammel said. “Other than that, adrenaline was able to carry me through.”

Hammel came to the Cubs only after Tanaka said no thanks and signed with the Yankees. For $149 million less outlay, Hammel is looking like a smart signing as his ERA dropped to 2.91.

“It’s not like he’s tricking people,” his personal catcher John Baker said. “He’s pitching his game. He’s got a great slider.”

Once he shook off the bruise on his hand, Hammel went to work. He struck out five batters during the second, third and fourth innings. He gave up a run in the sixth and was pulled, but probably only because the bruise on his hand was growing. He gave up only four hits and one walk while striking out six.

“It gradually got stiffer and sorer,” Hammel said.

Though Hammel cost less to employ than the pitcher he beat on Tuesday, the Yankees know they’ll have Tanaka in New York for many years. That may not be the case for Hammel, who makes for an attractive trade possibility.

Hammel has answered all the questions about the possibility of being traded this season, but he was asked one more after Tuesday’s game.

“I could care less,” Hammel said. “I’m wearing blue pinstripes right now. I don’t think about that stuff. I want to be here. I want to pitch here. I want to win here.”

He has been doing a lot of the latter as the owner of five of the Cubs’ 16 wins this season. Hammel and Baker have developed a good rapport, and there’s a confidence growing.

“We’re texting back and forth the day before the game, saying, ‘Let’s get this guy and hand him a loss,’” Baker said. “I text him, ‘This guy is 43-0; he’s due to lose a game. Let’s have it be us.’”

Mission accomplished.