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.”

Why Cubs should make Jim Hickey an offer he can't refuse

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USA TODAY

Why Cubs should make Jim Hickey an offer he can't refuse

Monday’s interview with Jim Hickey in Chicago — roughly 72 hours after the Cubs fired pitching coach Chris Bosio and within a week of manager Joe Maddon saying “of course” he wanted his entire staff back — is a first step in the reboot at Wrigley Field.

Maddon would probably like to have that answer back, knowing he could have softened the language with corporate speak and created some wiggle room in the middle of a National League Championship Series where the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in every phase of the game.

But Hickey, the former Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach, is a familiar face and an expert voice at a time when Maddon’s honeymoon period appears to be over, repeatedly first- and second-guessed about his decisions, from the World Series Game 7 the Cubs won last year through a frustrating 43-45 start to this season and deep into another playoff run.

That staff is already in flux, with bench coach Dave Martinez scheduled to interview with the Washington Nationals for Dusty Baker’s old job and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske now leaving to take a lead role with the Los Angeles Angels hitters.

Here’s why the Cubs will probably have to make Hickey an offer he can’t refuse:

— A rival scout noticed how often Maddon looked like a solitary figure in the dugout, standing there looking down at his lineup card. Whatever friction Maddon felt with Bosio — a big presence who pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues and isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what he thinks — Hickey is someone the manager trusts after their eight seasons together with the Rays.

Maddon insisted he wasn’t maneuvering behind the scenes when he reached out after Hickey surprisingly parted ways with Tampa Bay in October, but it still showed the depth of their relationship: “I called him to console a friend.”

— While working for the Boston Red Sox, Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer got an up-close look at what Hickey did in the American League East, helping build the small-market contender that advanced to the 2008 World Series, the beginning of five seasons with at least 90 wins in six years.

Between his time with the Rays and Houston Astros, look at the All-Star pitchers Hickey has worked with: Chris Archer, David Price, Alex Colome, Brad Boxberger, Matt Moore, Fernando Rodney, James Shields, Rafael Soriano, Scott Kazmir, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge and Roger Clemens.

— Hickey can also offer unique insight into Alex Cobb, a free agent the Cubs will have to do more background work on as they try to replace 40 percent of their rotation. Cobb — who went 48-35 with a 3.50 ERA in 115 career starts for the Rays — just turned 30 and has only 700 innings on his major-league odometer after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in the middle of the 2015 season.

“He has a talent that most organizations search for relentlessly,” Cobb told the Tampa Bay Times after Hickey left the Rays with a year remaining on his contract. “He will have a great time being a free agent.

“I’m not going to try to explain how great Jim Hickey is. There’s really nothing I can say that would speak louder than his track record. All I can say is how fortunate I was to have him when I got to the big leagues. No one could have prepared me better.”

— Beyond the connection to Maddon, Hickey is someone who knows Chicago after growing up on the South Side, and that hometown draw will probably matter at a time when the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals are among several marquee teams in the market for a new pitching coach that now might be thinking: "Better Call Boz."

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

Dave Martinez – Joe Maddon’s bench coach during unprecedented runs of success with the Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays – is ready to step outside of the star manager’s shadow and run his own big-league team.

A Washington Nationals franchise coming off back-to-back division titles – while having some big personalities in the clubhouse and obvious internal issues – could still be that ideal opportunity.

The Nationals have reached out to set up an interview with Martinez, a source said Monday, confirming a Washington Post report in the wake of Dusty Baker’s messy exit, eight days after a massively disappointing playoff loss to the Cubs.

Martinez had been an X-factor in Washington’s search two years ago, when negotiations broke down with Bud Black and the Nationals eventually circled back to Baker, the former Cubs manager.

Martinez has the built-in credibility that comes from playing 16 seasons in the big leagues, which would be an asset for a team that has Bryce Harper entering his final season before free agency and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation.    

Martinez, who is fluent in Spanish and analytics, spent the last 10 years working as the bench coach for two data-driven organizations, putting him at the cutting edge of defensive shifts, bullpen management and game-planning systems.    

While Maddon thrives in the front-facing aspects of the job, dealing with the media before and after every game and selling a vision to the public, Martinez handles a lot of the behind-the-scenes issues, putting out clubhouse fires and interacting with the players in one-on-one settings.

The partnership worked to the point where the Rays captured the 2008 American League pennant and the Cubs won last year’s World Series. While the Cubs have advanced to the National League Championship Series for three straight seasons, the Nationals have been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs four times since 2012.

In the middle of the grueling five-game playoff series where the Cubs outlasted the Nationals – which may have been a tipping point against Baker for Washington executives – Maddon lobbied for Martinez to be in the manager mix during baseball’s hiring-and-firing season.

“He belongs in the group,” Maddon said. “I know all these people being considered, and I promise you our guy matches up with every one of them.

“He was such a heady, aggressive, gritty kind of player. Bilingual. All that matters. He's not afraid to have the tough conversations (that) people in that position may shy away from.

“Believe me, I see all the names. There are a lot of good names, and I like a lot of these dudes. But I’m just telling you: To not include his name with those other people baffles me.”