ST. LOUIS — Kyle Hendricks has sneaky-good athleticism for someone who can walk through Wrigleyville without being noticed by Cubs fans. The Dartmouth College graduate has the analytical mind to absorb detailed scouting reports and apply all that information on the mound. A young pitcher is now living up to those Greg Maddux comparisons that once sounded lazy and unfair, painting the corners with an artist’s touch, creatively outthinking hitters.
It all almost came together on Monday night at Busch Stadium, the in-depth research, snowballing confidence and never-nervous body language, Hendricks finishing three outs away from the 16th no-hitter in franchise history and settling for a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 43,397.
For the Cubs, this masterpiece cut the magic number to clinch the division down to three. For Hendricks, it gave him a signature-type game to add as an exhibit to his National League Cy Young Award case, slicing his major-league-leading ERA to 2.03 with the pinpoint control and unpredictable sequences that should translate in October.
The no-hitter suspense ended in the ninth inning when Jeremy Hazelbaker — the No. 8 hitter in a powerful St. Louis lineup — led off and blasted an 0-2, 81-mph changeup that didn’t dive toward the dirt and hung enough to fly 380 feet into the right-field seats.
“If you’re going to give it up, at least it’s that way, not a cheap hit or something,” Hendricks said. “Just left the ball up and he got it. What are you going to do?”
That’s Hendricks, who still shut down a Cardinals team (75-68) desperately fighting for a wild-card spot, facing only 26 batters across eight efficient innings, allowing two walks and finishing with seven strikeouts.
Aroldis Chapman got the final three outs, but Hendricks doesn’t have to overwhelm hitters with triple-digit velocity, because he knows how to minimize damage and pitch away from slugging percentage. According to ESPN, he entered this rivalry game with a 9.6-percent hard-hit rate that ranked third in the majors.
Hendricks has now allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his last 20 starts, the longest streak by any big-league pitcher this season and a major reason why the Cubs are 41 games over .500 and have the best record in baseball.
Miguel Montero — who has caught almost 8,400 innings in The Show — called Hendricks the most-prepared pitcher he’s ever worked with in his career.
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“This year, I think theory and reality have come together almost every game,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s a meticulous planner. I do believe that he knows exactly what he wants to do per hitter, almost per pitch, before the game begins. But then it’s a matter of putting the ball where you want to.
“That’s been the uncanny part about his season this year is that he comes up with this plan that he’s been able to go out there and almost execute it to perfection every game.”
Hendricks wants to put the ball in play and let his defense go to work and got enough highlight-reel plays to think this could be history in the making. There was shortstop Addison Russell sliding to his right and popping up to throw out Jhonny Peralta in the sixth inning. On the next play, Jason Heyward chased a foul ball Hazelbaker lifted out toward the right-field seats, knocking into fans and leaning over the first row to make the catch. The next inning saw third baseman Kris Bryant diving to his left and making a good throw to prevent a Stephen Piscotty single.
“I was pretty calm, actually,” Hendricks said. “I was definitely thinking about it, obviously. From probably the fifth inning or so, it creeps in your mind. Guys start getting quiet, not talking to me, all the things that come along with it. But it was the same old simple thoughts: Just trying to make good pitches out there.”
Hazelbaker made Hendricks pay for the one mistake changeup out of the 96 pitches he threw, a mixture of two- and four-seam fastballs and the curveball that kept the Cardinals off-balance.
“I’m not going to lie,” Montero said, “the one guy that I was the most afraid of was (Hazelbaker) after the sixth inning, because he can do a lot of different things. He can get a bunt and beat the throw. He can hit a ball in the hole and beat the throw because he’s so fast. (But I wasn’t afraid of him) hitting the ball out, so you got to give him credit.”
Hendricks is 15-7 with a 0.96 WHIP and 173 innings on his resume — and getting stronger the deeper the Cubs get into this World Series-or-bust season — but he will never be anyone’s idea of a self-promoter.
“There’s been talks for a while now about that,” Hendricks said of his Cy Young Award candidacy. “Again, those are just based on results, so the only way results are going to come is if you focus on the little things. That’s my preparation, consistent work in between my starts and then simple thoughts taking the mound.”