Cubs’ trade forces lining up with Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel

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ST. LOUIS — This Cubs season is almost 25 percent complete, which is still a long way toward September, much less the finishing touches on a renovated Wrigley Field or the 2020 TV bonanza (as long as the cable bubble doesn’t burst).

As the Cubs packed up after a 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday afternoon, they would leave Busch Stadium with the worst record in baseball at 13-26, percentage points below the tanking Houston Astros.

[RELATED: Rizzo vs. The Shift: Cubs take what they can in loss to Cards]

Which makes you wonder where the Cubs would be if they didn’t get Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro’s bounce-back starts, Emilio Bonifacio’s hot streak, Welington Castillo’s step forward, Mike Olt’s eight homers, Hector Rondon’s 1.47 ERA and some very good starting pitching.

The trade forces are lining up with Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the steady sign-and-flip guy who let one bad inning ruin his getaway day. Hammel joked it’s “the kiss of death” to strike out the side in the first, and sure enough he gave up a two-out, two-run single to Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha in the four-run second.

It depends on what aisle you want to shop in, but Hammel (4-2, 3.06 ERA) said physically that was the best he felt all year, despite giving up five runs in 5.1 innings.

Samardzija has a 1.45 ERA, going 7-for-8 in quality starts, but he will still be looking for his first win when he faces the first-place Milwaukee Brewers on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.

“The wins thing to me is frustrating, because in general I think it’s a stat we’ve all moved away from,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “Unfortunately, I think it’s a big story because he’s now breaking records with his winless streak. But the way he’s pitched — he’s been as good as anybody in the National League. People recognize it.”

Or, as pitching coach Chris Bosio said: “Jeff Samardzija’s a beast.”

[MORE: Cubs hope Kris Bryant can change conversation, stopping talk about future]

When the Cubs woke up in St. Louis on Thursday, the five teams in the American League East were separated by only 3.5 games. The five teams in the National League East were separated by only 4.5 games.

There are teams at or above .500 that could be seeing windows closing or feeling some pressure from the fans and ownership to deliver results now — like the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Colorado Rockies.

The New York Yankees — who will face Hammel and Samardzija next week at Wrigley Field — have 60 percent of their Opening Day rotation on the disabled list.

As part of the sweeping Tommy John epidemic, the Miami Marlins just lost Jose Fernandez, their All-Star, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young contender and box-office attraction in Little Havana.

[MORE: Cubs hoping Arodys Vizcaino will be Tommy John comeback story]

The Texas Rangers have gone to this well before with Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster, but they do have seven pitchers from their 40-man roster now on the disabled list.

Hoyer knows there’s nothing left to say about the business side of Samardzija’s game: “Certainly, we’ve discussed his contractual status ad nauseam.”

Samardzija, who intends to test the free-agent market after the 2015 season, lobbied the Theo Epstein administration after a breakthrough year as a reliever in 2011, believing he could be a frontline guy in the rotation.

“Jeff deserves the most credit,” Hoyer said. “He was the one that really pounded the table saying he wanted to be a starter and he’s kept getting better and better. There’s times when he’s relied on his split, but this year he’s done a brilliant job of pitching with his two-seamer, staying down in the zone. He keeps evolving as a pitcher.”

The kind of pitcher who could be a difference-maker in a pennant race. It will take some time to play out, but no one will be surprised when the Cubs try to jump the market again.

“You got to stay looking at the positives,” Hammel said, “because we played a lot of good ballgames where we’re not getting blown out. It’s not ugly games. It’s just one or two pitches here and there or one or two timely hits that we just haven’t gotten. It’s not like we’re just laying down.”

Sean Manaea pitches the first no-hitter of 2018

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Athletics southpaw Sean Manaea delivered his first career no-hitter against the Red Sox in a decisive 3-0 victory on Saturday night. Any thought of a perfect game was banished in the first at-bat, when Mookie Betts drew a leadoff six-pitch walk to open the first inning. From there, Manaea was nearly flawless, holding the Sox to four total baserunners and striking out 10 of 30 batters faced — a career record.

Manaea was gifted a three-run lead thanks to RBI doubles from Jed Lowrie and Stephen Piscotty and Marcus Semien‘s solo shot off of Chris Sale in the fifth inning. While the Red Sox managed to draw two walks off of Manaea, they didn’t come anywhere close to plating a run. Andrew Benintendi tried to break up the no-no in the sixth inning with an infield hit down the first base line, but strayed out of bounds and later saw his hit reversed on a call of batter interference.

Entering the ninth inning, the 26-year-old lefty was sitting at just 95 pitches through eight frames of no-hit ball. He quickly deposed Blake Swihart and Mookie Betts with a groundout and fly out, then walked Benintendi on seven pitches. Any threat the Red Sox might have posed was soon eliminated, however, as Hanley Ramirez ground into a force out to complete the no-hitter.

Manaea is the first A’s pitcher to toss a no-no since Dallas Braden’s perfect game against the Rays eight years ago. The last time the Red Sox were on the losing end of a no-hitter was also against an AL West rival, when the Mariners’ Chris Bosio clinched a 2-0 no-no on April 22, 1993. Manaea’s feat is even more outstanding given how dominant the Red Sox have looked this season: prior to Saturday’s defeat, they boasted a 17-2 record and had yet to be shut out during the regular season.