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Cubs’ Hammel improves to 4-1 by shutting down first-place Brewers

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Updated: April 27, 2014 9:12PM



MILWAUKEE — The Cubs tried and failed two years ago to sign Matt Garza to a multiyear contract and start building a long-term rotation.

Similar talks with Jeff Samardzija more than a year ago went nowhere, and with little progress since, the lame-duck ace figures to be one of the top pitchers available near the trade deadline in July.

So now what? They have no timeline and few starting pitching answers for this already lengthy rebuilding process under Theo ­Epstein.

What about Jason Hammel?

What if the Cubs flipped the script on their flip-guy approach to rebuilding?

With another seven scoreless innings to beat the Brewers 4-0 on Sunday, Hammel finished off an especially impressive opening month.

He’s looked so good during an otherwise brutal April for the team that he already is starting to spark questions about his thoughts beyond his one-year deal as the Cubs’ annual sign-to-trade candidate.

“Contract stuff,” he said with a dismissive laugh. “That’s crazy to even bring that up right now. It’s April. It’s still very early.”

But if the Cubs approached him at some point, would he entertain extension talks, especially the way guys such as Garza have been singing the virtues of escaping the Cubs for win-now teams?

“Like I said in spring training, every player wants to stay in [one] place for a long time,” said Hammel, 31. “Obviously it would be entertained, but I’m not thinking about that.”

For an organization that has set itself up for trade rumors in spring training because of its roster-churning methods, it’s never too early to look at the long-term picture.

Especially during an eight-win opening month in which Hammel has challenged Samardzija for top honors and has made his manager wonder how nice it would be to count on the right-hander beyond this year.

“That’s kind of a no-brainer,” Rick Renteria said. “Any manager wants to have pitching. But there’s only so much any of us can control. So I don’t worry about theoreticals. Right now Hammy’s ours.”

Hammel, who took a no-hitter into the sixth Sunday, is 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA and a 0.69 WHIP that leads the majors. He credits a lot of his success to getting healthy after dealing with knee surgery in 2012 and subsequent forearm “tenderness” last year that he speculated might have been related to adjusting to the knee issue.

Hot starts aren’t new to him. He began 4-1 with a 3.79 ERA last year, 6-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 2012 and 3-1 with a 3.23 ERA in 2011.

But he hasn’t had a month better than this one since going 4-0 with a 1.83 ERA in June 2010.

“I’m not really thinking overall months,” said Hammel, whose only loss with the Cubs came at Yankee Stadium when Masahiro Tanaka shut them out. “I know it was a good one, but not good enough for us right now. We wanted to win more. That’s the bottom line.”

Hammel also knows he caught a break Sunday with Brewers slugger Ryan Braun sidelined with a sore muscle in his back.

“It’s a big difference,” he said. “Big difference.”

But that doesn’t take anything away from the command, confidence and pace he brought to the mound Sunday — and all month.

John Baker, who has become Hammel’s personal catcher and pitcher whisperer, compares the 6-6 power sinkerballer to former Marlins All-Star Josh Johnson at his best.

Even back in spring training, pitching coach Chris Bosio said he believed the Cubs were “unleashing” Hammel on other teams.

Teams such as the Brewers might agree.

As for July or beyond?

“I’m not thinking about that. I just want to win,” Hammel said. “I want to lead by example. I want to win. That’s what we all want to do. We’re learning how to do that right now.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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