CINCINNATI – Is this sustainable? Can Kyle Hendricks dominate hitters in October the way he controlled lineups during the regular season? The Cubs are about to find out.
“I don’t see why not,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Everything’s there.”
The Cubs aren’t an invincible team, but they have the National League’s strongest, deepest roster. The transformation of Hendricks from a No. 5 starter into a Cy Young Award contender helps explain why the Cubs won 103 games and head into the postseason with a World Series-or-bust attitude.
“This is the day we’ve been waiting for,” Hendricks said after Sunday’s 7-4 comeback victory over the Reds at Great American Ball Park. “Now that we’re here, none of that means anything. The playoffs is what it’s all about. If you go out first round – that’s all that matters – you’re done.”
Hendricks killed hitters softly and earned that Game 2 slot in the rotation – against either the defending NL champion Mets or even-year Giants – with a breakthrough performance that saw him capture the ERA title (2.13), become a 16-game winner and reach the 190-inning mark.
“Hendricks has had a very good season,” an NL Central scout said. “It’s just a little different in the playoffs with a command-and-control guy with limited margin for error.”
Precision is Hendricks’ trademark, but he didn’t have it in the first inning against this Cincinnati lineup, hitting Scott Schebler with a pitch to load the bases and then walking in the game’s first run after a five-pitch at-bat against Eugenio Suarez. That forced pitching coach Chris Bosio to hold a conference on the mound. Tucker Barnhart then knocked a two-out, two-run single into right field, pushing Hendricks’ major-league leading ERA over 2.00.
But Hendricks has been so remarkably consistent, always keeping his team in the game. This snapped a streak of 22 straight starts where the right-hander allowed three earned runs or fewer. Those four runs matched a season-high. He also lasted five innings, something he’s done 30 times through 30 starts.
“You can’t disregard the results,” an NL West scout said. “From a pure scouting standpoint, the changeup is obviously better than just like above-average. It’s probably more of an elite-type changeup. When you fill out all the boxes, it’s nothing (extraordinary). But when you look at the guy’s ability just to make pitches – and his feel to pitch – it’s in that elite category.
“When you got this one weapon, that changeup’s in the back of everybody’s mind. And it kind of makes everything else better.”
Hendricks doesn’t have the same arsenal, name recognition or bank account as San Francisco’s frontline guys. Hendricks certainly didn’t experience the same hype that followed New York’s young power pitchers (and some are now recovering from season-ending surgeries).
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But this is what happens when you combine a Dartmouth College education with an intricate game-planning system, an elite defense and a snowballing sense of confidence. The Cubs won’t hesitate to give Hendricks the ball on Oct. 8 at Wrigley Field.
“I will admit – I’ve always undervalued him,” the NL West scout said. “He’s obviously a Cy Young candidate this year. He’s probably not that front-of-the-rotation starter at the end of the day. But he’s way better than people give him credit for.
“The guy obviously has a lot inside that you can’t quantify. I think the true test for him (will be): Can he match up (in the playoffs)?”
Hendricks says “definitely,” even if he never expected to here at this point in his young career.
“They’re also going to have to go up against our lineup,” Hendricks said, “so that’s always a big plus in our column. I’m just going to go out there with the same thing I’ve been doing, focusing on my game, simple thoughts and attacking whatever lineup it is.”