Cubs

Cubs counting on Kyle Hendricks in the stretch run

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Cubs counting on Kyle Hendricks in the stretch run

The Cubs have turned a corner since Kyle Schwarber was inserted into the No. 2 spot in the lineup on an everyday basis, but it's another Kyle who could be almost as important down the stretch.

The Cubs are counting on Kyle Hendricks to give them some quality outings in the season's final six weeks to lock up a playoff spot and make a push toward hosting the National League wild-card game (or even a run at the St. Louis Cardinals atop the NL Central).

[MORE: Kyle Schwarber’s whirlwind year pushes Cubs to another level]

After all, the Cubs aren't sitting with a 96-plus percent chance to make the postseason only because of their young, exciting position players. They also feature the fifth-best pitching staff in Major League Baseball by ERA.

"The young bats have gotten a lot of attention, but really, our run prevention is really why we have the record that we do," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "We really have done a great job of holding teams down.

"People talk about our pitching going forward and how we need to address pitching, but really, pitching is why we have the record that we do and hopefully it holds up as we go forward."

Hendricks heads to the mound Wednesday night in San Francisco as the Cubs try to extend their lead to 8.5 games over the reigning-champion Giants in the battle for the second wild-card spot.

The 25-year-old righty has been going through a rough stretch of late, watching his ERA rise above 4.00 for the first time since the calendar flipped to July.

Hendricks had a 22 1/3 scoreless-inning streak running before the All-Star Break, but he has recorded just one quality start in seven chances in the second half (though the Cubs are 5-2 in those starts).

After getting battered around by the White Sox on Aug. 14 (eight hits, five runs, three walks in 3.1 innings), Hendricks went back to his roots in an effort to find answers, looking at game tape of his Double-A starts.

[RELATED - Bring it on: Cubs embracing the playoff pressure]

He's insistent he's found the problem, working on getting his mechanics back on track with his balance and the angle of his arm/hand as he pushes through each pitch.

"Coming in and seeing that Double-A stuff, I think it's a turning point," Hendricks said. "I brought [Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio] in. He completely agreed and said it looks completely different.

"Now I can have that other set of eyes as far as me feeling it and working together to get through these bullpens and try to get it back together."

Hendricks said he just hasn't had that consistent "feel" of his mechanics all season, finding it for times and then losing it again. He attributed his scoreless streak in June and July to a product of luck as much as anything.

Hendricks - whose dad is a golf pro - compared his pitching motion to a golf swing.

"If you have a terrible back swing, how are you gonna generate any power coming down on the ball?" he said. "That's kinda where I [was] at. Everything that's happening on the backside, once I get to the point of releasing the ball, I've lost all my power, all my direction. I just kinda have to guide my hands.

"It wasn't right. And you don't quite know what to do to get it back. And not having that confidence going out, that screws you up mentally. That's why I was trying to fix the mental problems early in the year.

"Clearly, it's mechanical now and it's kind of a relief that we've figured it out."

The results haven't come immediately (he gave up three runs on seven hits in five innings last time out against the Braves), but Hendricks said he believes it can be a relatively quick turnaround on implementing these mechanical changes in game action and he was "fired up" to get things back on track.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

To be clear, Hendricks is far from a disappointment this season, even with his year-long mechanical issues. Any team in the playoff hunt would be pretty happy with a 6-5 record, 4.03 ERA and 1.22 WHIP from their No. 4 starter. FanGraphs rates Hendricks as a 2.4 WAR player in 136.1 innings.

The Cubs know what they have in Hendricks, especially because they understand they need production out of more than just Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation.

"I don't think he gets talked about enough," Hoyer said. "You look up and he's been really good for us. You know what you're gonna get out of him on a game-to-game basis.

"He throws strikes, he changes speeds, you know he's exceptionally well-prepared for each game. I think everyone focuses on [Lester and Arrieta], but Hendricks and [Jason] Hammel have been a huge factor for us."

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.