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Cubs 3, Rangers 1: Hammel Time

The Cubs won their second straight over the A.L. West leaders.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

For the last few seasons, Jason Hammel has had good performances in the first half, then declined rapidly in the second half. Whether that was due to injuries, overuse or hitters figuring him out, it was predictable: July comes, Hammel's not good.

Hopefully, Saturday's Hammel performance will begin a stretch of changing that around. Hammel threw six strong innings, striking out seven and allowing just one run, and the Cubs defeated the Rangers 3-1 to win their interleague series and put themselves in a position for a possible sweep Sunday.

Yu Darvish, making his first-ever start at Wrigley Field, was striking out tons of Cubs over the first three innings -- five of the first six hitters he faced, mixing up a 98 mile per hour fastball with a devastating slider that tied Kris Bryant, among others, in knots. Darvish, who was also making his first start off the disabled list after a shoulder issue, worked from the stretch to every hitter, even with no one on base, something I found odd.

The Cubs allowed a run in the second inning on an odd play. Ryan Rua was on second base with two out when Elvis Andrus grounded a ball that appeared headed up the middle. Addison Russell made a nice stop but threw a bit wide to first base. At that point Rua broke for the plate and Anthony Rizzo fired a ball way over Miguel Montero's head. How that wasn't ruled an error, I'll never know. Here's video of this play -- you make the call! After the run scored, Montero threw Andrus out trying to take second and keep the game at 1-0.

An inning later, the Cubs broke through against Darvish. Montero led off with a walk, the first of two free passes he had on the day, and one out later, Tommy La Stella singled. After Bryant struck out for the second time on the day, Rizzo laced a two-run double down the right-field line [VIDEO] to give the Cubs the lead.

Hammel kept mowing down Rangers, at one point striking out five of six hitters he faced, and then Rangers manager Jeff Banister did something that puzzled me. He left Darvish in what appeared to be a couple batters too many in the fifth. It seemed obvious Darvish was on a pitch count, and he was removed after pitch number 90, but it almost appeared that Banister was trying to get him to complete five innings so he could get a win.

Shawn Tolleson, who used to be the Rangers closer but who lost his job after blowing four saves by the middle of May and posting an ERA north of seven, relieved Darvish.

Then, trailing 2-1 in the sixth, Banister let Tolleson bat for himself. This is a reliever who had two professional at-bats prior to Saturday, the last one in the minor leagues four years ago. I mean... are you trying to win the game, or save your bullpen, or play this like a spring-training game?

Weird. We, of course, will take it. The Cubs teed off on Tolleson in the bottom of the sixth. Ben Zobrist singled and Jason Heyward forced him at second. After a flyout and Montero's second walk of the day, Matt Szczur batted for Hammel and bounced this single up the middle [VIDEO] to score Heyward with a much-needed insurance run.

That's the second day in a row Szczur delivered with a pinch hit (and third overall, as he had a pinch hit in the final game before the break). Overall as a pinch-hitter Szczur is now 10-for-29 (.345) with a double, a triple and five RBI. That's outstanding production off the bench.

With a 3-1 lead it was up to the bullpen. Adam Warren got helped out with a couple of nice plays by Javier Baez, who had replaced TLS at third base. Here's one of those plays [VIDEO], and Baez's throw, which bounced right to Rizzo, is what we used to call an "artificial-turf throw," specifically designed to use the field to accurately get the throw to first.

Travis Wood recorded four outs, two by strikeout, and then it was up to Hector Rondon. He posted a save (his 15th), but he got some help from Heyward, fighting the sun on this terrific catch [VIDEO].

Heyward might not be hitting much (though he did walk and steal a base Saturday), but the defense... wow. Also, that ball, hit by Rougned Odor, would probably have been a home run on most days. There was a pretty good breeze blowing in off Lake Michigan for this game, which kept that ball in the ballpark, thankfully. About the catch, Heyward said:

So the Cubs win again with solid pitching, good defense and timely hitting, much as they won Friday's game. It's nice to see, and it does seem as if the All-Star break really did recharge this entire team, as they've played the last two days like they did much of the first half. For Hammel, here's one of the secrets to his success in this one:

If you were at the ballpark Saturday you already know this, but it was probably the nicest weather day of the entire summer. The game-time temp was 70, with low humidity, and the breeze off the lake was refreshing. It was an absolutely perfect day to be at the ballpark, and a perfect result made this a wonderful afternoon.

The Cubs moved to 20 games over .500 for the first time since July 6, and on the walk watch: six Cubs walks in this one brought the season total to 386, or 4.29 per game. Pace: 695. That would put them on target to break the team record (650) in game 152, September 21 at Wrigley against the Reds.

The Cubs have a chance to pick up another full game on the Pirates and Cardinals if the Nationals and Marlins, respectively, can beat those clubs in evening action Saturday. Meanwhile, the Cubs go for a series sweep, which would be their first since June 27-28-29 at Cincinnati and their first at Wrigley since June 17-18-19 over the Pirates, Sunday afternoon. John Lackey will go for the Cubs and Cole Hamels for Texas.