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How Kyle Hendricks transformed into a Cy Young-level performer for Cubs

How Kyle Hendricks transformed into a Cy Young-level performer for Cubs

No, Kyle Hendricks didn’t plan to quietly nudge his way into the Cy Young Award conversation when he outlined his goals for 2016. But here he is, leading the majors with a 2.09 ERA while the Cubs watch their nominal fifth starter transform into a dominant pitcher who should be at or near the front of a playoff rotation.

“I had my sights set a little lower,” Hendricks admitted. “I’m just taking it in stride.”

Hendricks continued his systematic destruction of National League lineups on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates during a 3-0 victory as the Cubs continued their march toward a division title and what they expect will be a deep run into October.

The magic number to clinch the NL Central is 18 after Hendricks crafted seven scoreless innings against a dangerous Pittsburgh lineup, not allowing a Pirate to go past second base while working efficiently (99 pitches, 61 strikes) during a clean game that lasted only two hours and 36 minutes.

On the one-year anniversary of Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter/onesie press conference at Dodger Stadium, Hendricks didn’t allow a hit until Gregory Polanco’s soft single to center field leading off the fifth inning. Hendricks (13-7) has entered his own zone — where he’s confident enough to throw whatever he wants whenever he wants — the way Arrieta did during last year’s Cy Young campaign.

“It’s just a different method,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Jake was a little bit more power — obvious power — but (Kyle’s) got a power changeup. (And) Jake had this freaky movement (on his fastball) — and so does Kyle. It’s just maybe not as hard but still equally effective. Give him credit. Stop looking at the gun. This guy’s really good.”

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The radar readings don’t matter as much when Hendricks can pinpoint two- and four-seam fastballs while dropping curveballs that play off his changeup, neutralizing hitters to the point where entire opposing lineups become very-good-hitting pitchers (.205 average/.581 OPS).

When Hendricks is on, Miguel Montero describes his job as putting down fingers and catching the ball.

“It’s all about location,” Montero said. “Nowadays, everybody’s just trying to overpower everybody (else) and they forget about the secondary stuff.

“He knows he doesn’t throw as hard, but he locates his fastball. He locates his secondary stuff and he works the edges. He worked the corners, and that’s actually even harder to hit than 97 (mph) down the middle. Even if you know the fastball’s coming, or the changeup’s coming, (when he executes the) pitch, you can’t do much with it.”

The Cubs (84-47) gave Hendricks — a pitcher already working with an understated confidence and a belief in his scouting reports — an early lead when Anthony Rizzo slammed a Chad Kuhl fastball off the small video panel above the right-field wall for a two-run homer in the first inning.

Whether or not Rizzo can catch up to Kris Bryant in the MVP race, Hendricks has to be among the leading Cy Young candidates, given his metrics (0.98 WHIP), remarkable consistency (18 straight starts with three earned runs or less) and strong August push (4-0 with a 1.28 ERA in six starts).

Hendricks has done it at home (9-1 with a 1.21 ERA through 14 games at Wrigley Field) and helped preserve the bullpen (3-0 with a 0.79 ERA in three starts following an extra-inning game the day before).

“It’s amazing how he does it,” Rizzo said. “He’s not the guy who’s getting away with plus-plus stuff. He’s just executing his game plan. He knows how to attack hitters. He studies hitters. And he went to Dartmouth and has a really good education, so he out-tricks guys.”

But this is much more than just a hot streak or a run of good matchups. Hendricks now ranks fifth in career ERA (2.96) among all active pitchers with at least 70 starts, trailing only Jose Fernandez, Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner.

Not that Hendricks is wondering about whether or not he will start Game 1 in the playoffs or where he will finish in the Cy Young voting compared to big-money aces like Max Scherzer.

“You can’t look that far in the future in this game, because it will come up and bite you,” Hendricks said. “I’m definitely a different pitcher than a lot of those guys. But, again, getting noticed, that kind of stuff, I’m just out there trying to pitch my game.”

"It's certainly possible": Craig Kimbrel could be at Wrigley by the end of the week

"It's certainly possible": Craig Kimbrel could be at Wrigley by the end of the week

With each appearance that Craig Kimbrel makes in Iowa, the more anticipation for his arrival in Chicago grows. Kimbrel, who’s faced 11 batters over three appearances for the team’s Triple-A affiliate, is not far away from Wrigley. He’ll get in another inning of work on Tuesday, and then the team plans to meet with him and make a decision about next steps.

“He’s feeling really good and doing a nice job of getting himself ready,” Cubs’ President Theo Epstein said before Monday night’s game. “It’s not really about results or velo right now, it’s just kind of getting back into game shape and building that foundation. Tuesday’s an important checkpoint for him, to see how he’s feeling, and we’ll get together with him and make a call after that game.

“We’re getting close to the point where we’ll have established enough of a foundation where there’s an opportunity to take the next step provided he feels good with everything.” 

Once in Chicago, expect Kimbrel to be used as a closer in the most traditional sense of the word - at least at first. That means three out appearances in save situations, as opposed to a more flexible, leverage-based role that Kimbrel has -- at times throughout his career -- pushed back against. He only pitched more than an inning twice in 2018, and has done so 26 times over the span of his 542 game career. 

“With Craig, as he gets here, he’ll be slotted and really carefully,” Joe Maddon said. “And then as we get there, to the latter part of September, if it’s necessary, that’s when I think you look for the four outs possibly.

“He’ll be a three out guy when he gets here.” 

Some more news and notes from Wrigley Field as the Cubs begin a 4-game series against the Braves: 

  • After throwing 4 innings in relief on June 20th, Cubs top prospect Adbert Alzolay will make the first start of his major league career on Tuesday night. Alzolay is the presumed odd man out once Kyle Hendricks returns, but it sounds like the Cubs will give the rookie plenty of opportunities to prove he belongs with the major league club throughout the summer. “I think it’s all about can he perform at a level that allows him to contribute and make an impact,” Epstein said. “And it’s really important because you’re always looking for contributors and especially young ones that can come in, refresh the pitching staff, and be here for a while and make an impact. We need more of those guys.” 
  • There were a number of updates on injured Cubs pitchers on Monday. CJ Edwards threw up to 120 feet on Monday, and felt good according to Epstein. The reliever still has to throw a handful of side sessions before the team plans to approach him with a game progression. 
  • Kyle Hendricks threw 15 pitches off a mound, and also felt good after. He’s possibly in line to throw a longer bullpen later this week, and Epstein had mentioned the All-Star break as a time that’s “certainly in play” for his return. 
  • Brandon Morrow has thrown two side sessions in Arizona, and will throw a third sometime within the next two days. Prospect Nico Hoerner is also in Arizona taking part in baseball activities. Epstein mentioned the end of this week as a time that Hoerner could start seeing live at-bats again. 
  • 2B prospect Robel Garcia is making a ton of noise in Iowa. The 26-year-old is slashing .294/.366/.614 with 13 home runs over 43 games this year. With a lack of production from that position at the major league level (82 wRC+, 20th in MLB), speculation on Garcia’s timeline has grown of late. “He hits the ball really, really hard from both sides of the plate,” Epstein said. “He gets it in the air a lot, especially left-handed. He can turn around anyone’s fastball. Those are good ingredients - it’ll be interesting to see how he does as the league adjusts to him a little bit and challenges him with a heavier dose of breaking stuff.

    “I don’t want to put a timetable on it, but you’ve got to pay attention to a guy who’s performing at the level he is and offers the different skills that he has. Anyone on the Triple-A level is certainly on the radar.” 

Cardinals dealt tough blow as closer Jordan Hicks is diagnosed with torn UCL

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USA TODAY

Cardinals dealt tough blow as closer Jordan Hicks is diagnosed with torn UCL

As Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel ramps things up in Triple-A preparing for his MLB season debut, another NL Central closer is headed for a major surgery. 

Monday, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that closer Jordan Hicks has a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow.

Hicks' injury is a devastating blow to the Cardinals bullpen, which ranks 10th in MLB with a 4.15 ERA entering action on Monday. The 22-year-old is one of the hardest throwing pitchers in baseball. His average sinker velocity in 2019 is 101.1 mph, with opponents hitting just .183 against it. His slider is even tougher to hit, with opponents batting just .154 versus that pitch.

Hicks hasn't been perfect (3.14 ERA, 29 appearances/28 2/3 innings), but he's been a reliable closer, converting 14 of his 15 chances. A bad month of May in which he allowed five earned runs in 7 1/3 innings hurt his ERA. Outside of that month, though, he's surrendered just five earned runs in 21 1/3 innings pitched.

The Cardinals said they're determining the next course of actions for Hicks, but torn UCLs require Tommy John surgery. If Hicks faces Tommy John, he likely will be out anywhere between 12 and 15 months, putting him on the shelf for the rest of 2019 and potentially all of the 2020 season.

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