MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Texas putting title hopes on Darvish, Hamels

Texas putting title hopes on Darvish, Hamels

CHICAGO -- With another non-waiver Trade Deadline fast approaching, the Rangers continue to win from general manager Jon Daniels' work a year ago.

Cole Hamels? How did that guy get away from 28 teams last July, when the Phillies were offering him around?

The Rangers paid heavily to get Hamels, sure, but they don't go to the postseason without him in 2015 and that will probably be just as true for '16, once we're looking at it in the rear-view mirror.

Based on how smoothly Hamels navigated his way through the Cubs' lineup on Sunday and Yu Darvish's strong return Saturday, the Rangers are looking like a tough out, both in the regular season and the postseason.

Joe Maddon was thrilled his Cubs were able to win two out of three games against Texas over the weekend at Wrigley Field. This was a potential World Series preview between two powerhouse teams and it did not disappoint, with the Cubs winning 6-0 and 3-1 before Hamels carried the Rangers to a 4-1 victory on Sunday.

"It's kind of like looking in the mirror,'' Maddon said about the Interleague series. "There's a lot of youth on that team, a lot of athleticism.''

Heading into this series, the Cubs and Rangers had combined to go 193-111 since July 29. Neither team has been at its best in July, but Texas (55-38) remains the winningest team in the American League.

Hamels' six straight strikeouts

"You look at their lineup, I can understand why [they are],'' Maddon said. "They're really good. We've probably caught them at a good moment for us but that's because we pitched so well. Kyle [Hendricks] was really good and so was Jason [Hammel]. We had to beat arguably some of the best stuff you're going to see in baseball [in] Darvish, and we did well against [Martin] Perez the first day.''

While Rangers manager Jeff Banister wasted no time getting Hamels and Darvish into action in the second half, Maddon wanted his 1-2 combination to get as much rest as possible. Jake Arrieta (Tuesday) and Jon Lester (Monday) will resume their responsibilities when the Mets visit Wrigley for a rematch of the 2015 National League Championship Series.

The Cubs won only six of 21 games going into the All-Star break, with their rotation combining for a 6.39 ERA. Both Arrieta and Lester have been vulnerable in recent starts, but Maddon's starters still have a 3.03 ERA, the lowest in the Major Leagues.

When I asked Banister what most gets his attention about the Cubs, he pointed to the pitching staff.

"We haven't seen Arrieta, obviously, but just the numbers speak for themselves,'' he said. "It's a strong pitching staff.''

Banister loves how Maddon is able to move his talented players all around the field.

In the series, Kris Bryant played left field, right field and third base; Javier Baez played third base and second base; Willson Contreras moved between catcher and left field; and Jason Heyward went from right field to center. Ben Zobrist, Maddon's original super utility guy, started at second base in the first two games before getting the day off Sunday.

"They have such a versatile group of players, guys with a lot of different skill sets, a lot of different tools in their toolbox that they can maneuver around, give Joe some flexibility to do some things,'' Banister said. "They play the game the right way. They play hard. They put together quality at-bats. They have some tremendous young players. They have a nice mix of power and hit. They don't steal a lot of bases but they run the bases well. That's a good group over there.''

Darvish K's nine in his return

Addison Russell's switch from second base to shortstop in early August last season coincided with the Cubs' move from the drawing board into contention. There's no question about the move that has been the biggest difference maker for the Rangers.

Daniels' trade for Hamels carried Texas while Darvish was recovering from Tommy John surgery and could be even bigger now that Darvish is back in the mix.

Given that the NL features Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Arrieta and at least another half-dozen guys who would be aces in any era, it says a lot for Maddon to praise Darvish so strongly. The three-time All-Star had been sidelined with right shoulder discomfort but struck out nine in 4 1/3 innings against the Cubs on Saturday.

Hamels, who no-hit the Cubs at Wrigley Field in his last start for the Phillies, has been everything the Rangers hoped he'd be when they sent catcher Jorge Alfaro, right-hander Jake Thompson and four other prospects to Philadelphia to get him. He held the Cubs to one unearned run over eight innings Sunday, striking out seven and not walking anyone. Texas is 24-7 in his regular-season starts, including a 14-5 mark this season.

The Hamels trade came on July 31, 2015. The Tigers dealt David Price to the Blue Jays a day earlier.

This year's market may not feature any guys from that tier of elite arms. But Daniels and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein are busy working the phone for upgrades to their staffs.

Having lost Colby Lewis and Derek Holland to injuries in June, Daniels is under the gun to add a solid starter to keep Banister from having to overwork his bullpen. The Cubs have been blessed with relatively good health, but they face issues at the end of the bullpen, and Epstein said on Friday he's always looking for young, controllable starters.

History says both the Cubs and Rangers are going to be active. But they're dangerous teams as it stands. Maybe they will see each other again in October.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.