Kyle Hendricks' evolution almost leads to no-hitter as Cubs cut magic number to three

Kyle Hendricks' evolution almost leads to no-hitter as Cubs cut magic number to three

ST. LOUIS — Kyle Hendricks has sneaky-good athleticism for someone who can walk through Wrigleyville without being noticed by Cubs fans. The Dartmouth College graduate has the analytical mind to absorb detailed scouting reports and apply all that information on the mound. A young pitcher is now living up to those Greg Maddux comparisons that once sounded lazy and unfair, painting the corners with an artist’s touch, creatively outthinking hitters.

It all almost came together on Monday night at Busch Stadium, the in-depth research, snowballing confidence and never-nervous body language, Hendricks finishing three outs away from the 16th no-hitter in franchise history and settling for a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 43,397.

For the Cubs, this masterpiece cut the magic number to clinch the division down to three. For Hendricks, it gave him a signature-type game to add as an exhibit to his National League Cy Young Award case, slicing his major-league-leading ERA to 2.03 with the pinpoint control and unpredictable sequences that should translate in October.

The no-hitter suspense ended in the ninth inning when Jeremy Hazelbaker — the No. 8 hitter in a powerful St. Louis lineup — led off and blasted an 0-2, 81-mph changeup that didn’t dive toward the dirt and hung enough to fly 380 feet into the right-field seats.

“If you’re going to give it up, at least it’s that way, not a cheap hit or something,” Hendricks said. “Just left the ball up and he got it. What are you going to do?”

That’s Hendricks, who still shut down a Cardinals team (75-68) desperately fighting for a wild-card spot, facing only 26 batters across eight efficient innings, allowing two walks and finishing with seven strikeouts.

Aroldis Chapman got the final three outs, but Hendricks doesn’t have to overwhelm hitters with triple-digit velocity, because he knows how to minimize damage and pitch away from slugging percentage. According to ESPN, he entered this rivalry game with a 9.6-percent hard-hit rate that ranked third in the majors.

Hendricks has now allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his last 20 starts, the longest streak by any big-league pitcher this season and a major reason why the Cubs are 41 games over .500 and have the best record in baseball.

Miguel Montero — who has caught almost 8,400 innings in The Show — called Hendricks the most-prepared pitcher he’s ever worked with in his career.

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“This year, I think theory and reality have come together almost every game,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s a meticulous planner. I do believe that he knows exactly what he wants to do per hitter, almost per pitch, before the game begins. But then it’s a matter of putting the ball where you want to.

“That’s been the uncanny part about his season this year is that he comes up with this plan that he’s been able to go out there and almost execute it to perfection every game.”

Hendricks wants to put the ball in play and let his defense go to work and got enough highlight-reel plays to think this could be history in the making. There was shortstop Addison Russell sliding to his right and popping up to throw out Jhonny Peralta in the sixth inning. On the next play, Jason Heyward chased a foul ball Hazelbaker lifted out toward the right-field seats, knocking into fans and leaning over the first row to make the catch. The next inning saw third baseman Kris Bryant diving to his left and making a good throw to prevent a Stephen Piscotty single.

“I was pretty calm, actually,” Hendricks said. “I was definitely thinking about it, obviously. From probably the fifth inning or so, it creeps in your mind. Guys start getting quiet, not talking to me, all the things that come along with it. But it was the same old simple thoughts: Just trying to make good pitches out there.”

Hazelbaker made Hendricks pay for the one mistake changeup out of the 96 pitches he threw, a mixture of two- and four-seam fastballs and the curveball that kept the Cardinals off-balance.

“I’m not going to lie,” Montero said, “the one guy that I was the most afraid of was (Hazelbaker) after the sixth inning, because he can do a lot of different things. He can get a bunt and beat the throw. He can hit a ball in the hole and beat the throw because he’s so fast. (But I wasn’t afraid of him) hitting the ball out, so you got to give him credit.”

Hendricks is 15-7 with a 0.96 WHIP and 173 innings on his resume — and getting stronger the deeper the Cubs get into this World Series-or-bust season — but he will never be anyone’s idea of a self-promoter.

“There’s been talks for a while now about that,” Hendricks said of his Cy Young Award candidacy. “Again, those are just based on results, so the only way results are going to come is if you focus on the little things. That’s my preparation, consistent work in between my starts and then simple thoughts taking the mound.”

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

The MLB regular season is still 13 days away, but Willson Contreras is ready for the swings to count.

The Cubs catcher hit an absolute bomb of a homer Friday afternoon off White Sox pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, but it wasn't just a homer.

Contreras put an exclamation mark on the dinger (his third of the spring and the second this week) with an A+ bat flip:

I'm not sure what's more majestic: The 450-foot shot or the 45-foot bat-flip.

Either way, Contreras is ready for those 2018 NL MVP votes.

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback


Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, last place in NL West

Offseason additions: Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco, Tony Watson, Julian Fernandez

Offseason departures: Michael Morse, Matt Cain, Matt Moore, Denard Span, Kyle Crick, Christian Arroyo

X-factor: Brandon Belt

The trades for Longoria and McCutchen are going to get all the attention, but the Giants are sort of acquiring Belt, too. 

Their sweet-swining lefty first baseman only appeared in 104 games in 2017, missing the last few weeks of the season with a bad concussion. When he was on the field, he led the team in both homers (18) and walks (66) despite just 451 plate appearances. 

Belt has turned into one of the most patient hitters in the game and if he is able to stay healthy for a full season, would slot in perfectly in the 2-hole ahead of McCutchen, Longoria and Buster Posey. 

Projected lineup

1. Joe Panik - 2B
2. Brandon Belt - 1B
3. Andrew McCutchen - RF
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Hunter Pence - LF
7. Brandon Crawford - SS
8. Austin Jackson - CF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Ty Blach
5. Chris Stratton


The Giants tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2017, surprising many around the league. Absolutely nothing went right for the team, from a lack of power on the field (Belt missed a third of the season and still led the team in homers), injuries (Bumgarner only made 17 starts) and general ineffectiveness (Mark Melancon).

But the Giants are a team that excels in even years, though the Cubs may have broken that juju by knocking San Fran out of the NLDS in 2016.

Still, between the return to health of key players and some big moves that improved the lineup, this team is primed for a return to form.

Watson is a nice piece at the back end of the bullpen and bet on a rebound from Melancon, who was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game from 2013-16 (1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 147 saves).

Expect more out of the rotation with Bumgarner and Cueto a dynamic 1-2 punch. Cubs fans are familiar with what Samardzija can do if he gets on a role, too.

It seems crazy to pick the Giants to finish higher than the Diamondbacks, but they still have the same core of players from the championship years and have a much-improved roster.

Prediction: Second place in NL West, wild-card team

Complete opposition research

San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Franciso Giants