Why Kyle Hendricks is the new Mr. October in Cubs rotation

Why Kyle Hendricks is the new Mr. October in Cubs rotation

WASHINGTON – The Cubs know Kyle Hendricks approaches moments like this with the kind of outward enthusiasm you would see in someone doing laundry or taking out the garbage.

That personality – never left them see you sweat or smile – combined with killing-them-softly stuff made Hendricks such an ideal Game 1 starter against the Washington Nationals.

Hendricks always seems to be The Other Pitcher on this kind of stage. Even though he already beat Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers on the night the Cubs won their first NL pennant in 71 years and outlasted Corey Kluber in last year’s unforgettable World Series Game 7 against the Cleveland Indians.

This time, it became all about Stephen Strasburg, the former No. 1 overall pick with the $175 million contract who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning on Friday night at Nationals Park. Yet once again, there was Hendricks calmly walking off the mound after pitching another game of his life, the Cubs feeling all the momentum in this best-of-five National League Division Series.

“He didn’t miss a spot,” catcher Willson Contreras said after a 3-0 win. “He didn’t miss a pitch. We did everything that we wanted to.”

Don’t act surprised: Hendricks has a World Series ring and a 1.98 ERA in eight career playoff starts. During those 41 innings against some of the world’s best hitters giving absolute focus, he has 36 strikeouts and a 1.000 WHIP. If this is a new normal, then it could be a very long October for the defending champs.

“He’s the same guy all the time, no matter what,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s not easy to do in this game. He just has this confidence about him. He doesn’t get rattled.”

[MORE CUBS-NATIONALS: Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo show Nationals why Cubs are the defending champs]

One scout tracking the Cubs for another playoff team thought Hendricks would be a particularly good Game 1 matchup against a fastball-happy Washington lineup. The thinking: The Nationals would have to wait five days for the playoffs to start after the regular season ended and his different looks would disrupt their timing even more.

Hendricks kept the Nationals completely off-balance, allowing only two singles and three walks and finishing with six strikeouts during those seven shutdown innings and using the rush from those 43,898 fans to hover around 90 mph when needed.

“I’m just a laid-back guy, but you’re definitely feeling it,” Hendricks said. “The energy there in the stadium and the crowd was pretty cool, but we’ve played some big games, even down the stretch in our division. We’ve had good atmospheres, so we were ready to take that adrenaline on and use it to our advantage.”

From there, Hendricks can precisely locate those fastballs wherever he wants and the extra velocity creates different dimensions for the changeups that he can cut or fade. The Dartmouth College graduate became the perfect match for the team’s elaborate game-planning system, understanding all the trouble spots within the strike zone for a powerful Washington lineup.

“He’s always locked in,” Contreras said. “From the moment that he gets to the ballpark, he’s always quiet. He’s focused on what he wants to do, and he knows the hitters. He has his plan.”

Hendricks still flies under the radar on a team loaded with players who have first-round/top-prospect pedigrees and high-profile free agents with big contracts. But with Jon Lester knowing he didn’t deserve this Game 1 start, Jose Quintana having zero postseason experience and Jake Arrieta recovering from a Grade 1 hamstring strain, the Cubs need Hendricks to be the new Mr. October in their rotation.

Cubs reportedly interested in adding Yu Darvish to starting rotation


Cubs reportedly interested in adding Yu Darvish to starting rotation

The Cubs aren't expected to bring back Jake Arrieta. But what about adding the other top pitcher on the free-agent market?

According to a Saturday report from The Score's Bruce Levine, the Cubs are showing interest in Yu Darvish, who they recently saw in the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Darvish joined the Dodgers in the middle of last season after spending five and a half years as a Texas Ranger. He pitched Game 3 of the NLCS against the Cubs, holding that unusually cold lineup to just one run in 6.1 innings at Wrigley Field, helping the Dodgers reach the World Series. Darvish pitched twice in the Fall Classic against the Houston Astros, taking losses both times and twice failing to get out of the second inning against his old division rivals, including in the decisive Game 7.

The 31-year-old Darvish has been excellent since coming over from Japan ahead of the 2012 season. He's been named to four American League All-Star teams and finished in the top 10 in AL Cy Young voting in each of his first two seasons. He missed the entirety of the 2015 campaign with an injury.

Darvish has a 3.42 career ERA in his five big league seasons and three times has struck out more than 200 hitters in a season, including a baseball-leading 277 in 2013.

Along with Arrieta, Darvish is expected to fetch a huge payday this offseason. The Cubs' reported interest could show that they're not finished adding to their pitching staff despite signing four arms in recent weeks. Tyler Chatwood was a free-agent addition to the starting rotation, bringing the number of spoken-for spots there to four, with Chatwood joining Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana as rotation locks. Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek were added to the bullpen, while Drew Smyly — who's expected to miss the entirety of the 2018 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery — was signed with eyes on 2019.

After Mike Montgomery's desire to be a starter or go somewhere where he could be was reported during the Winter Meetings, there was a thought he could be the answer at the No. 5 spot on the starting staff. But this reported interest in Darvish — not to mention the team's previously reported connections to free-agent starter Alex Cobb — could mean the Cubs are still looking to add a big name to make the rotation more closely resemble what it looked like in recent seasons with Arrieta in the mix.

The Epstein's front office certainly has options, and the team has frequently voiced its confidence in Montgomery as a starter. But the team, for all its additions, has yet to make a splash this offseason. Stay tuned.

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester became the most important signing in Cubs history when he agreed to a six-year, $155 million contract to be the ace of the Cubs.

He spurned his old team — the Red Sox — along with a handful of other teams ready to pony up the nine-figure deal necessary to acquire the frontline starter. By choosing the Cubs, Lester accelerated Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer's famous "Plan," legitimizing Chicago as a free agent destination and as an up-and-coming perennial playoff team.

"This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago," Epstein said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

Inking Lester to a megadeal was a calculated risk, but all $100 million contracts are. Here's a closer look at the Cubs 100 million dollar men:

Nov. 30, 2006 - The Cubs introduce Alfonso Soriano

Back in 2007, the Cubs needed to make a splash and did so by signing the top free agent hitter on the market.

The Cubs inked Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million dollar contract — then, the largest in franchise history. The Cubs had their leadoff hitter — fresh off becoming the fourth member of the 40-40 club — to go along with a new manager in Lou Piniella. Soriano made two All-Star teams for the Cubs in 2007 and 2008 while playing a key role on both division-title winning teams.

However, his time with the Cubs will often be remembered by his offensive decline, his subpar play in the outfield, and his eventual trade to the Yankees. While his overall body of work was statistically respectable, his output did not match the $136 million the Cubs invested in him.

Dec. 15, 2014 - The Cubs introduce Jon Lester

Like the signing of Soriano, the reeling in of Lester to Wrigley Field was paired with the hiring of another new big name manager, Joe Maddon.

Three years into his megadeal, Lester is 43-25 with a 3.33 ERA in 96 starts. The 2016 All-Star and Cy Young runner-up has done some of his best work in the postseason, where he's 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in his last nine postseason appearances — three of which came in the 2016 World Series.

Lester's tireless work ethic off the field and his veteran influence in a young Cubs clubhouse has made this signing a smashing success. 
Dec. 15, 2015 - The Cubs introduce Jason Heyward

One year to the day after introducing Lester, Jason Heyward met with the Chicago media after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract — the richest in franchise history.

Heyward was coming off one of his best offensive seasons (.289, 13 HR, 60 RBI with the Cardinals) and his third Gold Glove in four seasons but the prized free agent struggled from the start in Chicago. Taking Heyward away from the Cardinals and signing baseball's top free agent prize ended up creating an outfield log jam in Chicago.

Heyward's speech during the rain delay in Game 7 against the Indians will most likely end up being the highlight of his Cubs career. The post-World Series championship offseason storyline of Heyward rectifying his broken swing was entertaining to follow on social media, but his 2017 slash line of .259/.326/.389 is clearly not worth the $184 million he signed for.

The future is now

"I believe in the plan that they have in place for the future of the Cubs."

That's what Lester said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

That statement still holds true today. Lester remains the anchor of the Cubs staff surrounded by Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana with reinforcements on the way. Regardless of any additions or subtractions, the Cubs will again be one of baseball's World Series favorites entering 2018 and the reliable lefty will be at the center of it all.

Halfway home, the $155 million deal has been "smart money" spent on Lester, the most important signing in Cubs franchise history.