Cubs

Under-the-radar Kyle Hendricks pitching as good as any Cubs pitcher

Under-the-radar Kyle Hendricks pitching as good as any Cubs pitcher

By not lighting up the radar gun, Kyle Hendricks has managed to stay under the radar.

But make no mistake: Hendricks is pitching as good as anyone on the Cubs right now.

It might be surprising to realize, what with reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and reigning National League Pitcher of the Month Jon Lester filling the top two slots in the Cubs’ rotation. But Arrieta’s less-than-perfection has been well documented of late, and Lester is fresh off getting rocked by the New York Mets.

Hendricks, meanwhile, is dominating opposing lineups and keeping the scoreboard clean.

He’s the Cubs’ fifth starter, but don’t tell Joe Maddon that.

“I don’t even consider him (a fifth starter). This guy’s just a good starting pitcher. It’s a wonderful, classic example of not having to throw 90-some miles an hour to be effective," Maddon said. "It’s not often you see that right-hander doing what he’s doing right now. So give him credit, he’s been spot on with his command. … You’ve got to like everything he’s doing.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Hendricks’ latest performance was another beauty. He lasted just 5 1/3 innings against the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, but he allowed only one unearned run, keeping them away from home plate while the Cubs’ offense bashed out 12 hits and scored 10 runs in the 10-4 victory.

Hendricks has brought his ERA down to 2.61 on the season, among the NL leaders and with only Arrieta’s 2.33 better on the Cubs' starting staff. For the ninth straight start, Hendricks allowed three or fewer earned runs, something he’s failed to do just twice this season in 16 starts. And in those two games he allowed just four.

“I just try and take every game individually. I’ve been on a little bit of a roll,” Hendricks said. “But I’ve been getting good work in in between starts, and when I’m out there it’s just been simple thoughts, make good pitches.

“Results obviously bring confidence. At the same time, you can’t live off results. So every time I go out there, I’m just trying to simplify as much as possible. That’s having one thought: Make good pitches. When I’m out there, even if I get a bad result, as long as it was a good pitch, that’s what I’m trying to focus on and move forward from there.”

Arrieta and Lester will both surely be on the NL All-Star team, but it’s worth noting that they aren’t the only two deserving Cubs hurlers. Up until his rough outing in New York, Jason Hammel probably fell into that category, too, and Hendricks certainly has shown he’s All-Star caliber — and maybe even pitching better than all those guys right now.

“It’s so fun to watch from the side because you see the reaction by the hitter when he makes a pitch that they take that they know is a strike but there’s not a whole lot they could’ve done with it,” Maddon said. “The late-swinging foul balls, the uncertainty of what the pitch was going to be. He’s doing a great job of mixing it up, varying speeds, hitting his spots. I don’t think he could pitch any better than he is right now.”

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Hendricks has been in good stretches before. Last season, his ERA was down to 3.44 in mid-July before turning back up over the final two and a half months of the season. But there’s no doubt this season has been different, and Hendricks feels it, too.

“Last year I definitely didn’t know myself as well as I do right now,” Hendricks said. “Again, I kind of got out of my mechanics. When you know yourself a little better each time, you can get out of them but get back in them quicker. There have been times this year where I wasn’t sharp, but I was able to not let it waver too far. I was able to get right back in my slot, so that’s been big this year.”

Don’t expect to see Hendricks pitching for the NL next week in San Diego. Leave that to Arrieta and Lester. In Hendricks’ own words, he’s the fifth starter on this team, and he’s happy to let others demand attention while he continues to go under the radar.

“On this team, I definitely am (the fifth starter),” Hendricks said. “I’m the five guy, and that’s where I am right now, which is fine. I don’t really think about it like that.

“I just know when (Maddon) gives me the ball, I’m going out and doing whatever I can do — keeping the team in the game, making good pitches. That’s just my role.”

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.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”