CLEVELAND — Kyle Hendricks has already done "it," with "it" being a pressure-packed start opposite his opponent’s ace in the 2016 playoffs. And that one went well.
In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, Hendricks out-dueled Los Angeles Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw with 7 1/3 innings of shutout, two-hit, facing-the-minimum ball. It was a spectacular showing on a nervy stage at Wrigley Field, which hadn’t seen its team secure a pennant since 1945.
Now, Hendricks will be the one taking the ball for the Cubs as they look to erase a 3-1 deficit and win the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908 on Wednesday night. He’ll face Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber, who’s already shut down the Cubs twice in the World Series, but is embracing the moment that has 108 years of history riding on it.
“This is the ultimate dream,” Hendricks said. “You dream of getting to the World Series, winning the World Series. When you're out in your backyard as a kid, playing Little League at the field with your friends, this is the moment you dream about: Game 7, 3-2, two outs, something like that, bottom of the ninth. But it's always Game 7 of the World Series.”
The Cubs will deploy an all-hands-on-deck strategy Wednesday, with ace left-hander Jon Lester available out of the bullpen as well as Game 4 starter John Lackey and even Game 6 starter Jake Arrieta, who threw 102 pitches Tuesday. Hendricks will throw plenty of stressful pitches, which is to say every one of them will have to be perfectly executed in a game that can be reasonably expected to be close.
That means a quality-over-quantity approach will likely be in place for Hendricks’ pitch count, with Lester prepared to make his first relief appearance in nine years (that came in the 2007 American League Championship Series, in which the Indians blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to the Red Sox).
Lester has set a positive example for a young guy like Hendricks — he’s only 26 and, while he led the National League with a 2.13 ERA, is only in his third year in the majors — for how he goes about his business in the playoffs. Though Lester said he doesn't feel the need to say anything extra to Hendricks before Wednesday night: "Hey, it’s Kyle. He doesn’t talk to anybody anyway, so nothing changes.
"I would imagine his emotions are going to be the same as it was a month ago and two months ago and three months ago and back to Opening Day," Lester added. "That’s one thing that impresses me about him is that he stays really level-headed and even-keeled throughout (any) situation.”
Outside of that Game 6 NLCS start, Hendricks’ postseason has been a bit of a mixed bag. He allowed two runs in an injury-shortened start in Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants and uncharacteristically struggled with his control (four walks) in the Cubs’ Game 2 loss to Kershaw and the Dodgers in the NLCS. He was knocked around a bit in Game 3 of the World Series by Cleveland, scattering six hits and two walks, but he didn't allow a run in 4 1/3 innings.
Manager Joe Maddon said there’s a subtle key to Hendricks having an “on” night, which he’ll be looking for from the third base dugout Wednesday.
“He's an artist,” Maddon said. “I mean, he could really make pitches. So pitching tomorrow you'll know very quickly where he's at just based on the location.
“I’ve always gone by the takes. If you see the hitter take a pitch that is obviously a strike, and he does not mention anything to the umpire and he knows it's a strike, that tells you how much his ball is moving and how fine it is. When I'm watching from the side and I see that, I know he's going to have a good night.”
With his Wednesday status still uncertain, Hendricks sat in Progressive Field’s interview room and answered questions maybe a little more emphatically than usual but not to a jarring extent. The wasn’t any air of nerves or pressure or anything but the same, usual demeanor Hendricks has on or off the field. Game 7 might be the biggest start he’ll ever make in his career, and he’ll embrace the target that comes with it, but he’s approaching it as a normal game without anything else attached to it.
“When we get there tomorrow, I'm just going to embrace the opportunity like I have the rest of this postseason, honestly,” Hendricks said. “Approach it like any other game, simple thoughts, the same old thing.”