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.”
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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.