Cubs counting on Kyle Hendricks in the stretch run


Cubs counting on Kyle Hendricks in the stretch run

The Cubs have turned a corner since Kyle Schwarber was inserted into the No. 2 spot in the lineup on an everyday basis, but it's another Kyle who could be almost as important down the stretch.

The Cubs are counting on Kyle Hendricks to give them some quality outings in the season's final six weeks to lock up a playoff spot and make a push toward hosting the National League wild-card game (or even a run at the St. Louis Cardinals atop the NL Central).

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After all, the Cubs aren't sitting with a 96-plus percent chance to make the postseason only because of their young, exciting position players. They also feature the fifth-best pitching staff in Major League Baseball by ERA.

"The young bats have gotten a lot of attention, but really, our run prevention is really why we have the record that we do," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "We really have done a great job of holding teams down.

"People talk about our pitching going forward and how we need to address pitching, but really, pitching is why we have the record that we do and hopefully it holds up as we go forward."

Hendricks heads to the mound Wednesday night in San Francisco as the Cubs try to extend their lead to 8.5 games over the reigning-champion Giants in the battle for the second wild-card spot.

The 25-year-old righty has been going through a rough stretch of late, watching his ERA rise above 4.00 for the first time since the calendar flipped to July.

Hendricks had a 22 1/3 scoreless-inning streak running before the All-Star Break, but he has recorded just one quality start in seven chances in the second half (though the Cubs are 5-2 in those starts).

After getting battered around by the White Sox on Aug. 14 (eight hits, five runs, three walks in 3.1 innings), Hendricks went back to his roots in an effort to find answers, looking at game tape of his Double-A starts.

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He's insistent he's found the problem, working on getting his mechanics back on track with his balance and the angle of his arm/hand as he pushes through each pitch.

"Coming in and seeing that Double-A stuff, I think it's a turning point," Hendricks said. "I brought [Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio] in. He completely agreed and said it looks completely different.

"Now I can have that other set of eyes as far as me feeling it and working together to get through these bullpens and try to get it back together."

Hendricks said he just hasn't had that consistent "feel" of his mechanics all season, finding it for times and then losing it again. He attributed his scoreless streak in June and July to a product of luck as much as anything.

Hendricks - whose dad is a golf pro - compared his pitching motion to a golf swing.

"If you have a terrible back swing, how are you gonna generate any power coming down on the ball?" he said. "That's kinda where I [was] at. Everything that's happening on the backside, once I get to the point of releasing the ball, I've lost all my power, all my direction. I just kinda have to guide my hands.

"It wasn't right. And you don't quite know what to do to get it back. And not having that confidence going out, that screws you up mentally. That's why I was trying to fix the mental problems early in the year.

"Clearly, it's mechanical now and it's kind of a relief that we've figured it out."

The results haven't come immediately (he gave up three runs on seven hits in five innings last time out against the Braves), but Hendricks said he believes it can be a relatively quick turnaround on implementing these mechanical changes in game action and he was "fired up" to get things back on track.

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To be clear, Hendricks is far from a disappointment this season, even with his year-long mechanical issues. Any team in the playoff hunt would be pretty happy with a 6-5 record, 4.03 ERA and 1.22 WHIP from their No. 4 starter. FanGraphs rates Hendricks as a 2.4 WAR player in 136.1 innings.

The Cubs know what they have in Hendricks, especially because they understand they need production out of more than just Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation.

"I don't think he gets talked about enough," Hoyer said. "You look up and he's been really good for us. You know what you're gonna get out of him on a game-to-game basis.

"He throws strikes, he changes speeds, you know he's exceptionally well-prepared for each game. I think everyone focuses on [Lester and Arrieta], but Hendricks and [Jason] Hammel have been a huge factor for us."

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.