Cubs: How Kyle Hendricks became such a critical part of The Plan

Cubs: How Kyle Hendricks became such a critical part of The Plan

Kyle Hendricks gets overshadowed in a rotation fronted by a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and two-time World Series champions with a $155 million contract (Jon Lester) and a love-to-hate reputation among opposing fans and players (John Lackey).

Hendricks also gets overlooked on a high-wattage team with an All-Star infield featuring faces of the franchise Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Plus a three-time Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon) with a distinctive look, more than 313,000 Twitter followers, a growing T-shirt empire and those Binny’s Beverage Depot commercials.

But in trying to create a sense of momentum after the All-Star break, the Cubs will give the ball to Hendricks on Friday afternoon against the Texas Rangers, before the American League’s best team unleashes Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels this weekend at Wrigley Field.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of headlines on our team, so I’m pretty far down there,” Hendricks said with a laugh. “It’s fine with me. I like it that way.

“If there’s not much going on, not much hype, that’s fine. I’m just going out there, trying to do my thing and win some ballgames. That’s it.”

Hendricks actually leads a slumping rotation with a 2.55 ERA, ranking sixth in the National League between Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez (2.52) and New York Mets superhero Noah Syndergaard (2.56). Opponents have generated only a .589 OPS against Hendricks, a shutdown that matches up to Stephen Strasburg’s 12-0 start for the Washington Nationals (.584). A 1.03 WHIP also makes Hendricks a top-10 NL pitcher in that category.

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No doubt, there’s an element of Maddon manipulating the game, playing matchups and minimizing damage. But Hendricks did beat Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke and the extreme-makeover Arizona Diamondbacks in his first start this season. Hendricks also threw six scoreless innings against the first-place Nationals during that four-game sweep at Wrigley Field in early May.

Hendricks lost a 1-0 decision to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in front of a sellout crowd at AT&T Park and a national-TV audience. Hendricks beat the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates in June, outperforming pitching prodigies Julio Urias and Jameson Taillon.

“Kyle’s been as steady as anybody among us,” Maddon said.

Hendricks would come across as edgier if he had long hair, a beard, a body covered with tattoos and no filter during his postgame press conferences. His potential would seem more intriguing if he went to a junior college you never heard of before. Self-promotion is not his specialty. He gets recognized in Chicago “once in a blue moon.”

It might not translate on TV or in street clothes, but Hendricks does have broad shoulders and long arms, growing into what’s become a 6-foot-3, 190-pound body. His father, John, had worked as a golf pro in California.

Dartmouth College head coach Bob Whalen – whose late father, “Chick,” had been a longtime scout for the Pirates – noticed the projectable pitching frame and the levers and athleticism to repeat a delivery during a showcase at Dodger Stadium.

In terms of perception, Hendricks would have overlapped with Bryant for a season at the University of San Diego if he had gone to his second choice out of Capistrano Valley High School.

Forget the polite manner off the field, Hendricks has enough guts and beneath-the-surface intensity to go 22-15 with a 3.23 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP through his first 359 innings in The Show. 

“He always knew what he wanted to do,” Whalen said. “He absolutely believed in his heart that he was going to pitch in the big leagues.”

[SHOP: Buy Cubs All-Star Game gear]

That Ivy League degree in economics obviously helps Hendricks process and apply the game-planning system engineered by coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello. Hendricks has fully incorporated his curveball and four-seam fastball – increasing the effectiveness of his changeup and two-seam fastball – and become more comfortable pitching inside and making adjustments on the fly.

“Learning how to mix those weapons has made me a completely different guy,” Hendricks said.

This is the best-case scenario Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group hoped for while Ryan Dempster played “Golden Tee” in the team’s Clark Street headquarters on July 31, 2012, consenting to a deal with the Rangers and watching the seconds tick down on the MLB Network trade-deadline clock.

Unless a mystery team reads the market’s supply-and-demand dynamics and becomes a surprise seller, the Cubs are realistic enough to know they probably won’t feel as desperate as other contenders and won’t land a frontline starting pitcher at this year’s deadline.

Hendricks is 26 years old, under club control through the 2020 season and ready to reboot a 53-35 team that lost 15 of its last 21 games before the All-Star break and hasn’t won consecutive series since early-to-mid June.

“We’ve handled all the pressure, all the expectations,” Hendricks said. “Obviously, we’re in a tough stretch right now, but like Joe says: Every team’s going to go through that. (Keeping) up the pace we were on for the first part of the year – no team does that.

“Going through spurts like this, sometimes it makes you stronger – if you can learn from it and come out of it. Hopefully, we can just take the positives out of it, turn it around after this break and get back to winning.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound


Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.