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.”