Cubs' Hammel's off-season work paying off

Jason Hammel came to spring training on a mission.

It's too early to declare “mission accomplished,” but Hammel's off-season work on physical fitness appears to be paying off.

As the Cubs head into the final two weeks of spring training, No. 4 starting pitcher Hammel is 2-0 with a 1.90 ERA. He has walked just one and struck out 11 in 10 spring innings.

Hammel, 33, has moved down to fourth in the rotation from third after the off-season signing of John Lackey. A resurgence by Hammel would be huge for the Cubs, who suffered a noticeable drop-off in quality in the rotation last year after ace Jake Arrieta and No. 2 starter Jon Lester.

A hamstring ailment hampered Hammel in the middle of last season, and a short leash from manager Joe Maddon made for a somewhat unhappy 2015 for the pitcher.

According to Hammel, much of the woes centered on a lack of fastball command.

“That's how I survived, by fastball command,” he said. “Last year the fastball command just wasn't there. I was missing up. The direction might have been fine but my command was always down. I was always good executing the heater, and I just wasn't doing it.”

With it all, Hammel finished the season 10-7 with a 3.74 ERA and a decent WHIP of 1.16. He struck out 172 in 170⅔ innings, for a career-best 9.1 strikeouts per 9 innings. Most of the positive numbers went in the books in the first half of last season.

Hammel seems to be in tiptop physical shape this spring after changing his workout routine, and he's also been working well with second-year man Kyle Schwarber behind the plate. Schwarber, who will see most of his time in left field, is the No. 3 catcher on the depth chart.

“I think, first of all, he's a student of the game and he's ready to learn,” Hammel said of Schwarber after his last start, as quoted by “He made a lot of adjustments over the offseason and even early this spring in game calling. You see him sticking his leg out and he's a little lower target than last year. That only helps guys like me — tall leverage — where I need that little extra sight line down, that helps a lot, too.”

Hammel's off-season workout routine has drawn the notice of Maddon.

“He's in great shape,” the manager said. “Oh, my God, he looks good. I know he's really focused on getting off like he did last year, really a great start, not a good start. We just have to maintain the latter part of the season. And of course last year, getting injured probably fed into him not finishing as strongly as he started.”

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