Cubs

Why Cubs could bet on Kyle Hendricks in Game 1 vs. Max Scherzer and Nationals: 'Ice in his veins'

Why Cubs could bet on Kyle Hendricks in Game 1 vs. Max Scherzer and Nationals: 'Ice in his veins'

ST. LOUIS – The Deadspin headline this summer said it all: “Max Scherzer Is An Intense Weirdo.” The featured clips showed the Washington Nationals ace snarling at a hitter and barking out stream-of-consciousness curse words at the beginning of his violent delivery.

Kyle Hendricks has such a blank look on his face when he pitches that it’s hard to tell if it’s spring training or the playoffs. That’s exactly why the Cubs would have as much confidence in Hendricks starting a big game as Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta, the same way the Nationals expect to win when Scherzer grips the ball and unleashes the fury and the arsenal of pitches that got him a $210 million megadeal.

“Absolutely,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He pitched Game 7 of the World Series with ice in his veins.”

Hendricks vs. Scherzer would be a fascinating clash of styles in a Cubs-Nationals playoff series already loaded with personalities, star power and pressure points. But whether it’s a game that means everything to generations of fans around the globe – or a Thursday at a dead Busch Stadium the night after the Cubs celebrated their National League Central title – it doesn’t matter to Hendricks.

“He might be pitching as well as anybody in the National League right now,” Maddon said before watching Hendricks throw five scoreless innings against a desperate St. Louis Cardinals team that got eliminated from the wild-card race when a Cactus League crew closed out a 2-1 win in the 11th inning.

Maddon insisted he hasn’t been floating trial balloons, even though it almost sounded like a Game 1 endorsement for a pitcher who has put up a 2.19 ERA in 13 starts since coming off the disabled list (right hand tendinitis) in late July.

“Everybody’s in play,” Maddon said. “We haven’t decided anything yet. I’ve been saying consistently that I think he’s throwing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him pitch. Even though he went through a potential Cy Young year last year – which was outstanding – I have not seen this combination of velocity/location.

“Earlier in the year when his fastball was 83-84 (mph), I was concerned about deception off the fastball to the changeup. Now you see that wider spread, and you see these guys just taking strikes. When he’s really going good, that’s what you see, the take and there’s no argument. The hitter knows.

“Now we’re seeing 88s, 89s and that’s why the changeup and the curve have gotten so much better.”

At a time when Lester is going through inexplicable control issues and insisting he’s fine physically, and Arrieta is still recovering from the Grade 1 right hamstring strain he suffered on Labor Day, and Jose Quintana has never started a playoff game before, the Cubs have a clear idea of what they can expect from the Dartmouth College graduate with an economics degree.

“A hundred percent, I’m ready,” said Hendricks, who struck out nine of the 19 hitters he faced while walking only one. “When you’re locked in, you take every game just as another game. Even if it’s a Game 1, my focus is just make good pitches.

“Whenever I’m out there, read the situation, know what I have to do, know my game plan and rely on my preparation.

“I’m right where I need to be going into the playoffs. If they want to give me the ball Game 1, great, but whenever they give it to me, I’m going to be ready.”

Because Hendricks already started the biggest game of his life and has grown from the experience, resembling the pitcher who led the majors with a 2.13 ERA last year and beat Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers on the night the Cubs won their first NL pennant in 71 years.    

“He’s steady,” Rizzo said. “He’s consistent. Good start, bad start, indifferent, he’s doing his homework before the games. He has a plan out there and he sticks to his plan. If he doesn’t have one of those pitches one night, he can make in-game adjustments. He spots up all the time.

“He’ll be ready for any atmosphere or any environment. Any situation that he’s put in, he’ll be ready.”    

The Cubs left St. Louis as a 90-win team, ending the flickering playoff hopes for the Cardinals with Taylor Davis getting the game-winning double, Jen-Ho Tseng earning his first big-league win and Leonys Martin making a spectacular, leaping, game-ending catch at the center-field wall to steal a home run from Paul DeJong.        

The Cubs will now have a week to decompress, break down the Nationals from every angle and then ramp it back up again on Oct. 6 at Nationals Park. Don’t be surprised if it’s Hendricks vs. Scherzer.    

“He assimilates his adrenaline in different methods as opposed to most other people,” Maddon said. “His manifestation is different. That was like effusively happy out there all night long. He’s just so able to control. He’s just that guy that channels his inner energy so well. His focus is so strong and his mental commitment to himself is so strong. He’s a different animal.”

CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

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USA TODAY

CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

ESPN’s Jesse Rogers stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki about his new book on Joe Maddon. The trio also debate whether Maddon’s tactics get stale and how the new coaching staff will affect the season.

Plus, who should hit leadoff? Fans are all in on Albert Almora Jr., but that might not be the best option. And whose side do you take in the Willson Contreras-Yadier Molina tiff?

Listen to the entire podcast here:

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

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USA TODAY

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

The Cubs' offseason has been hyperfocused on pitching, pitching and more pitching.

But what about the offense? Specifically: Who's going to hit leadoff for the 2018 Cubs?

That question seems to be one of the hot topics surrounding the team as they strive to make Even Year Magic a Chicago thing and win another World Series in 2018.

Before we get into who SHOULD lead off, I'll tell you who shouldn't: Albert Almora Jr., who is a popular choice among fans to fill in for the ghost of Dexter Fowler atop the order.

That's not a knock on the young outfielder, who seems primed for a breakout in 2018 when he should be playing on a regular basis and seeing a lot more time against right-handed pitching. 

This will only be Almora's second full season in the big leagues and given he was in a platoon for most of last year, he still only has 411 career plate appearances in the majors. 

So he's not much more experienced than Kyle Schwarber was when he was penciled into the leadoff spot for the Cubs to kick off 2017 and we all know how that experiment went. Leading off is a tough position to put players in, especially those that are still growing in their big-league skin.

Plus, Almora simply doesn't see enough pitches. He swings at the first pitch often (more than 11 percent of the time) and saw only 3.45 pitches per plate appearance in 2017. That mark was good for 29th on the Cubs behind eight pitchers (Dylan Floro, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Eddie Butler, Jose Quintana, Jake Arrieta and Hector Rondon), though the pitchers obviously have a small sample size of plate appearances.

Still, that's a shockingly small number for a position player. Almora would've been tied for 143rd out of 145 position players in baseball in pitches per plate appearance if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

But as for who SHOULD lead off, my choice is Ian Happ, though I would like to see Kris Bryant get some run up there and maybe even another Anthony Rizzo stint as "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time."

Here are my Top 5 suggestions if Joe Maddon were writing out the lineup today:

1. Ian Happ
2. Kris Bryant
3. Ben Zobrist
4. Jason Heyward
5. Anthony Rizzo

Here's more on the reasoning behind that:

Hot Stove - Cubs Leadoff Hitters/2021 White Sox Predictions

Who should be the Opening Day leadoff man for the Cubs? What will the 2021 White Sox lineup and rotation look like? We make our predictions and want to hear yours NOW on Hot Stove Live!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, January 17, 2018