Jason Hammel goes six shutout innings as Cubs improve to 8-1

CHICAGO -- Though he’s had good first halves in the past, Chicago Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel’s final months last season were so frustrating it begged the question: Would he even be in the rotation in 2016?

Hammel is answering the doubters so far, making it 2-for-2 in quality starts as he shut out the Cincinnati Reds for six innings in the Cubs' 8-1 victory Thursday night.

Hammel wasn’t perfect. He walked four and gave up four hits, but he did just fine in navigating around any baserunners. He made the right pitch at the right time, lowering his ERA through two starts to 0.75. That’s a far cry from his 5.10 second-half ERA last season, which carried over into a postseason in which he gave up seven runs in 4 1/3 innings. Back then, the norm was for Joe Maddon to pull Hammel early, sometimes before the damage got really bad. It irked Hammel, but the numbers backed the Cubs manager up. On Thursday, an early shower was the last thing on anyone’s mind, as not only did Hammel get through six innings easily but also helped his cause with an RBI double.

The Cubs' offense usually makes headlines these days, and it did it again Thursday as Chicago broke open a 3-0 game with a five-run eighth inning. Dexter Fowler is as hot as anyone in baseball as he reached base four times on three hits and a walk; the Cubs earned five free passes, increasing their league-leading total to 53 as they finished off a sweep of the Reds. It all added up to their eighth win in nine games this season. They're rolling.