Kyle Hendricks embraces Game 7 stage, but keeps usual even-keeled approach

Kyle Hendricks embraces Game 7 stage, but keeps usual even-keeled approach

CLEVELAND — Kyle Hendricks has already done "it," with "it" being a pressure-packed start opposite his opponent’s ace in the 2016 playoffs. And that one went well.

In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, Hendricks out-dueled Los Angeles Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw with 7 1/3 innings of shutout, two-hit, facing-the-minimum ball. It was a spectacular showing on a nervy stage at Wrigley Field, which hadn’t seen its team secure a pennant since 1945.

Now, Hendricks will be the one taking the ball for the Cubs as they look to erase a 3-1 deficit and win the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908 on Wednesday night. He’ll face Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber, who’s already shut down the Cubs twice in the World Series, but is embracing the moment that has 108 years of history riding on it.

“This is the ultimate dream,” Hendricks said. “You dream of getting to the World Series, winning the World Series. When you're out in your backyard as a kid, playing Little League at the field with your friends, this is the moment you dream about: Game 7, 3-2, two outs, something like that, bottom of the ninth. But it's always Game 7 of the World Series.”

The Cubs will deploy an all-hands-on-deck strategy Wednesday, with ace left-hander Jon Lester available out of the bullpen as well as Game 4 starter John Lackey and even Game 6 starter Jake Arrieta, who threw 102 pitches Tuesday. Hendricks will throw plenty of stressful pitches, which is to say every one of them will have to be perfectly executed in a game that can be reasonably expected to be close.

That means a quality-over-quantity approach will likely be in place for Hendricks’ pitch count, with Lester prepared to make his first relief appearance in nine years (that came in the 2007 American League Championship Series, in which the Indians blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to the Red Sox).

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Lester has set a positive example for a young guy like Hendricks — he’s only 26 and, while he led the National League with a 2.13 ERA, is only in his third year in the majors — for how he goes about his business in the playoffs. Though Lester said he doesn't feel the need to say anything extra to Hendricks before Wednesday night: "Hey, it’s Kyle. He doesn’t talk to anybody anyway, so nothing changes.

"I would imagine his emotions are going to be the same as it was a month ago and two months ago and three months ago and back to Opening Day," Lester added. "That’s one thing that impresses me about him is that he stays really level-headed and even-keeled throughout (any) situation.”

Outside of that Game 6 NLCS start, Hendricks’ postseason has been a bit of a mixed bag. He allowed two runs in an injury-shortened start in Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants and uncharacteristically struggled with his control (four walks) in the Cubs’ Game 2 loss to Kershaw and the Dodgers in the NLCS. He was knocked around a bit in Game 3 of the World Series by Cleveland, scattering six hits and two walks, but he didn't allow a run in 4 1/3 innings.

Manager Joe Maddon said there’s a subtle key to Hendricks having an “on” night, which he’ll be looking for from the third base dugout Wednesday.

“He's an artist,” Maddon said. “I mean, he could really make pitches. So pitching tomorrow you'll know very quickly where he's at just based on the location.

“I’ve always gone by the takes. If you see the hitter take a pitch that is obviously a strike, and he does not mention anything to the umpire and he knows it's a strike, that tells you how much his ball is moving and how fine it is. When I'm watching from the side and I see that, I know he's going to have a good night.”

With his Wednesday status still uncertain, Hendricks sat in Progressive Field’s interview room and answered questions maybe a little more emphatically than usual but not to a jarring extent. The wasn’t any air of nerves or pressure or anything but the same, usual demeanor Hendricks has on or off the field. Game 7 might be the biggest start he’ll ever make in his career, and he’ll embrace the target that comes with it, but he’s approaching it as a normal game without anything else attached to it.

“When we get there tomorrow, I'm just going to embrace the opportunity like I have the rest of this postseason, honestly,” Hendricks said. “Approach it like any other game, simple thoughts, the same old thing.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items


Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

[MORE: The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason]

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess, as we discussed on the latest CubsTalk Podcast.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.