CHICAGO -- If there was any doubt about the importance of the Chicago Cubs' series against their main wild-card competition, the defending champion San Francisco Giants, then it went out the window during a slow walk to the mound by Joe Maddon in the top of the fifth inning Thursday night.
The Cubs were leading 5-2 in Game 1 of their four-game series but starter Jason Hammel had just walked the first two batters of the fifth not long after giving up a two-out double and home run an inning earlier. Something was suddenly off, and Maddon felt the time was right for a move.
"You could sense they were feeling pretty good about where they were at and I thought we had to do something different," Maddon said after the Cubs' 5-4 victory.
Maddon pulled an incredulous Hammel from the game in favor of middle man Justin Grimm. It's a move a manager would make in the postseason. Remember, Hammel was leading 5-2 with one inning to go to qualify for the victory with just 76 pitches thrown on the night. The pitcher was asked if he understood the move.
"Yes and no," Hammel responded. "I felt like I earned the right to get out of that situation. He leveled with me. We're on the same page."
Grimm got the next three batters out, stranding the walks, so Maddon's move paid off. Five relievers in total pitched the Cubs through the next five innings despite a Brandon Crawford home run in the sixth to draw the Giants within one. That's as close as they came.
"I have complete faith in the skipper," rookie catcher Kyle Schwarber said. "Whatever he does we're going to back him up."
Hammel isn't disagreeing, but he wanted an explanation and went to Maddon after the game to clear the air. The fact that the Cubs can have a momentary controversy about a pitcher being pulled early in a pennant race is music to the ears of their fans. This sort of stuff has been missing over the past few years. Games in August didn't matter and pitchers being pulled early went unnoticed.
"Our main goal was to be relevant after the All-Star break and we're right there," Hammel said.
Indeed they are. The win vaulted the Cubs past the Giants in the standings for the second wild card, albeit by just a half game. But the importance of playing -- and winning -- these games now can only bode well for the future. That's next month and the years to come. The young Cubs are in it for the long haul, though their manager hit the urgency button on Thursday.
"More so right now because we're getting to this particular junction of the season where you just don't want to give anything away," Maddon stated. "Especially when you have a lead like that.
"To relinquish that and lose that game is a difficult loss, particularly to this team right now."
You can't fault Hammel for wanting to "clean up his own mess," as he put it afterward, but not if it comes at the expense of the team. The pitcher was quick to point out he didn't want this to become a "thing" but the message has been sent from the manager: All bets are off in a pennant race.
"He had good physical stuff from where I was sitting," Maddon said of Hammel. "The command was a little off with the fastball. I did not want to let them back into the game right there."
He didn't. And the Cubs won for the seventh time in eight games. Urgency has returned to Wrigley Field.