KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Before Monday night's game against the Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon made it clear he didn't want the burdens of the team's much-maligned pitching rotation to fall on the shoulders of recently acquired lefty Cole Hamels.
After all, Hamels is 35 and came to the Cubs from the Texas Rangers with a 4.72 ERA. How much could his new team actually expect from him?
"I want to believe we're going to find that magic potion at some point," Maddon said of his starting staff. "And I don't want to lay this all on Cole. Not at all. He's one-fifth of the rotation right now. It's about everybody."
Fast-forward to after the game, after Hamels gave up one run over six innings and after he made the right pitch, at the right time, over and over again, even though he gave up seven hits and a walk. He wants that burden.
"That's what I'm here for," Hamels said after the 3-1 win. "It's the belief I've always had, every season, to go out there and be a workhorse. To gain momentum or continue winning streaks or stop losing streaks."
It's only two games -- and you can tell Hamels is not exactly the pitcher he was a decade ago -- but perhaps the Cubs can rely on him. Plus, he's confident he can be better. His two-seam fastball is simply not special right now, though he desperately wants it to be. For the moment, he'll have to rely on his variety of off-speed stuff and his understanding of how to pitch. In those ways, he's at the top of his game.
"You can see the hitters are off-balance," teammate Kyle Hendricks said. "That's one of the biggest things I noticed. ... What we do here is helping him already. Just giving him a little bit of our game plan going in there and then he's able to execute it so well."
The Cubs have been searching all season for the spark that would ignite their rotation. A rejuvenated Jon Lester didn't rub off on any other starters during the first half, and now that Lester is slumping, perhaps Hamels will lead the way.
"He is who he is," Javier Baez said. "He's been impressive these last two starts. Hopefully he'll keep it going."
Hamels has given up just one earned run over 11 innings with his new team and he must have mentioned going deeper into games a half dozen times since coming to Chicago. And that's the best takeaway a Cubs fan could ask for: Hamels thinks there is more in the tank. He believes his arm action and the angle of the ball are looking more and more like they did in his best years. The Cubs may have bought low on Hamels at exactly the right time.
"In Texas, we were working on it but things weren't showing," he said.
It's starting to show now. And even when his stuff doesn't have the makings of his 25-year-old self, he has his know-how. The fifth inning on Monday showed what he's capable of. After Hamels loaded the bases with two outs, Hunter Dozier stepped to the plate in a 1-1 game. That's when Hamels' mind went into overdrive.
"Earlier in the year I gave up a big hit to Dozier, with guys on," Hamels explained. "I definitely didn't want to do it again. I made sure we had the right sequence. I was a little bit off on a few, but at least they had a purpose. I wasn't going to throw something out there that just didn't matter. It helped set up the fastball in and I was able to get a jam shot and get out of it."
Dozier grounded softy to first base on a 3-2 pitch and the Cubs never looked back as Baez led off the next inning with his 25th home run.
The Cubs were led in the first half by Baez and Lester. Perhaps the second half will feature Hamels, who has been everything they could have hoped for and more so far.
"That guy knows what he's doing," Hendricks said. "One hundred percent. I like watching him. Every pitch is a plus pitch and they're all out pitches. We got a good one."