Kyle Hendricks succeeded in the spotlight Oct. 22, taking his methodical, measured mentality into a nervy Game 6 clincher against Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. The result was 7 1/3 innings of two-hit shutout ball in which the 26-year-old Dartmouth alum faced the minimum to beat a guy many consider the best pitcher in baseball, and it sent the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945.
The playoff stage clearly hasn’t been too big for Hendricks, who led baseball in ERA (2.13) and soft contact rate (25.1 percent) in the regular season. He’s carried that success into October, allowing only three runs over 16 1/3 innings in the 2016 postseason. The way he’s gone about pitching those games and processing the magnitude of them hasn’t been any different than how he worked from April through September.
“I've never seen him rush through anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m sure he takes time brushing his teeth. I would imagine his cup of coffee takes two hours to drink.”
Hendricks, who was standing about 20 feet away from Maddon when his manager grinned through those comments Thursday, laughed when he got his turn at the podium: “I don't drink coffee, which probably doesn't come as a shock.”
But that deliberate approach Maddon was alluding to with his coffee comment has helped Hendricks maintain his effectiveness as the playoff pressure has mounted over the last few weeks.
“It took me a long time to fall into this mindset,” Hendricks said. “You can find yourself falling out of it and falling back into it. A lot of it has to do with confidence, I think. At the end of the day, if you are in that mindset where you're having simple thoughts, really you're on the mound, you know you can clearly recall your game plan, what you're trying to do to this hitter, and then you can simplify your thought and commit to just one pitch. When you have those kind of thoughts going through your head, you feel pretty confident, and you know you're going to do pretty well.”
Hendricks’ changeup has been an outstanding put-away pitch in the postseason, with the right-hander mixing it in well with his four-seam fastball and two-seam sinker. Opposing batters are swinging and missing at 21.7 percent of Hendricks’ changeups, according to TexasLeaguers.com, in his three playoff starts (among Cubs starters in the playoffs, that’s the second-highest whiff rate on any pitch only to John Lackey cutter, which has a 23.7 percent swing-and-miss rate).
Hendricks, too, has looked extremely comfortable in his starts at Wrigley Field — like that Game 6 outing against the Dodgers — posting a 1.32 ERA while limiting opposing hitters to a .589 OPS at home in the regular season (those numbers were a 2.95 ERA and .643 opponent OPS on the road).
So the stage is set for Hendricks to make, and succeed in, what will either be his final or second-to-last start of the 2016 season. Friday will mark Hendricks’ first career World Series start, but he hasn’t shown any reason to think the moment will be too big for him.
“I'm just going to take advantage of it,” Hendricks said. “I mean, how often do you get these opportunities? You dream of it as a kid. This is what you work all year long for.”