Jason Hammel pitches Cubs to winning month

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon has a simple explanation for his team's 11-7 start.

"We're playing good baseball," he declared after a 4-0 beauty of a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on a chilly Monday night.

It's hard to argue with him. The only two games the Cubs have lost over the past week were one-run affairs to the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Then they went to Cincinnati and swept a two-game set before coming home for Monday's gem. The final score was close enough, but with Cubs starter Jason Hammel on the mound the Pirates had little chance.

"Games like that are precipitated with good pitching," Maddon said. "He was just in control of the game."

Hammel's stat line told the story: 8 IP, 4 H, 7 K, 0 BB. It was a masterful performance, and Hammel now has 23 strikeouts and just one walk on the season.

"It all comes off the fastball," he said. "If you can't locate your fastball, you're in trouble because none of your breaking stuff is going to get honored. For me, it's especially important. I have to use my tall frame and downhill plane. Sinkerballers have to establish a strike zone first."

OK, enough of the technical stuff. May is approaching with the Cubs approaching first place. That's not a statement heard very often, but with Maddon's team playing so well it's no surprise where they are.

Right now they don't have many holes. With the Cardinals' loss to Philadelphia on Monday, the Cubs are just a game behind St. Louis in the division. Hammel was asked if it was too soon to declare the Cubs a good team after years of futility.

"We've been doing that since January, right?" Hammel said, drawing a laugh from reporters. "So I guess, not really."

First baseman Anthony Rizzo was the first to declare the Cubs' intentions during the winter when he said they would win the NL Central. He's backing that up with a great start to his season; Rizzo was on base three more times Monday and is now getting there at a nearly 50 percent clip. With Kris Bryant doing about the same behind Rizzo in the order, they've become a dangerous 1-2 punch.

"We preached it in spring training," Rizzo said. "We have to survive April. We're playing with a purpose."

Everyone knows what that purpose is: to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The Cubs are a long way from there, but getting to May above .500 is a start. They guaranteed themselves a winning month with Monday's win.

"It starts with Joe [Maddon]," Hammel said. "He's given us one hell of a feel."

If anyone knows what April can mean to a season, it's Maddon. On May 1, 2014, his Tampa Bay Rays were in last place in the AL East at 13-16. They stayed there until nearly August.

"Getting off to a good start is nice to do," Maddon said. "You can catch up but it will beat you up trying to do it."

Instead of playing catch-up, the Cubs might soon enough be the team to catch. After every win, they celebrate in the clubhouse for a few minutes like it's New Year's Eve -- disco ball and all. Who knew they would be dancing 11 times already?

"I always want them to celebrate victory," Maddon said. "If they're a little juvenile, I'll take it."

Good baseball allows for anything, juvenile or not. Just think how much fun they'll have if they reach first place.