Kyle Hendricks' evolution almost leads to no-hitter as Cubs cut magic number to three

Kyle Hendricks' evolution almost leads to no-hitter as Cubs cut magic number to three

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.”

Mike Montgomery nearing a return after minor shoulder injury

Mike Montgomery nearing a return after minor shoulder injury

MESA, Ariz. - We haven't seen Mike Montgomery throw off a mound yet this spring, but that should be coming very soon.

The veteran southpaw was dealing with some shoulder stiffness at the start of camp and was slightly delayed because of that.

But Montgomery has been throwing on flat ground of late, including another session Wednesday that went well.

He said his arm feels "perfect" after the recent work and the plan from here is to throw a bullpen off the mound Friday. The Cubs will want him to go through a couple sessions on the mound and then a couple live bullpens against hitters before getting into a game, so Montgomery is behind schedule this spring, but not by much.

The 29-year-old said he initially felt the shoulder stiffness a couple weeks ago during a throwing session on his own. He said it wasn't a big deal and normally would've powered through it, but felt no need to push it before spring training even began.

It was just a matter of trying to do too much too soon, Montgomery said. He was excited and wanted to keep throwing because he loved the feel he had snapping off his curveball right at that moment, so wanted to keep getting more reps the same way hitters want to take swing after swing.

"This isn't like basketball, where you can take 1,000 shots in a row if you wanted to," Montgomery said.

The swingman is entering his fourth season in a Cubs uniform and is being counted on as a valuable piece of the pitching staff. He gave the Cubs a huge boost in the middle of last season, joining the rotation when Yu Darvish went down to injury.

Montgomery wound up making 19 starts and 19 relief appearances last year and was projected to start the season as the long guy in the bullpen and next man up in the rotation if injuries strike.


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Javy Baez is going to make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall

Javy Baez is going to make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall

MESA, Ariz. — Javy Baez has a way of holding his teammates accountable without throwing anybody under the bus.

That's because he's always internalizing it, pointing the thumb first and then the finger.

2018 will go down as Baez's true breakout, finishing second in National League MVP voting and almost singlehandedly keeping the Cubs afloat at various times during a trying season.

But he wasn't only successful on the field. Baez is also finding a way to lead the Cubs — both by example and with his words.

After the Cubs were stunned by the Rockies at Wrigley Field for the NL Wild Card-Game last fall, Baez stood at his locker and held court for a half-hour, passionately discussing how the team needed a better sense of urgency from Day 1. He made similar comments before the game, showing a little fire when talking about how the Cubs need to stop worrying about anything outside the clubhouse and just focus on what they do.

Long before Theo Epstein or Joe Maddon talked about "urgency" and "edge," it was Baez's voice that echoed through the Cubs locker room. And he backed it up with his play all year long, including driving in the Cubs' only run in that lone playoff game.

"After the season was over, after the last game, we started saying what we were missing," Baez said Tuesday at Cubs spring camp. "It kinda bothered me because that's what this game is — to make adjustments and get better.

"We waited for the season to be over to look at it and to try to make adjustments when there was no tomorrow. I think this offseason, we had a lot of time to think about it to see how we're gonna react this year."

And how will they react? How will Baez make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall?

He knows he can't do it alone.

"I think it's the little things," Baez said. "Last year, one example — I didn't run full speed to first base. I used to get back to the dugout and nobody would say anything. This year, I'm sure if I don't do it, someone hopefully would say something. It's not to show you up, it's to make our team better."

It's a brand new year, and Baez looms as probably the biggest X-factor on the Cubs. If he can build on last year's MVP-level season, the Cubs are in a fantastic spot with regards to their lineup as Kris Bryant is back healthy and the other young hitters are potentially taking a step forward after refocusing and making adjustments over the winter.

Baez is emerging as a vocal leader and he certainly has the skillset and talent to back up his words.

But will he be able to duplicate his 2018 numbers or even expand upon them? Even as he led the league in RBI while hitting 34 homers, scoring 101 runs, stealing 21 bases and posting a .290/.326/.554 slash line, Baez still has plenty of room for development.

For starters, he has work to do on his plate discipline and he knows that. 

"I'm just trying to get more walks," he said. "Obviously people are talking about my walks and strikeouts. It's only gonna make me better if I walk more and see the ball better.

"Obviously I hope [to maintain that MVP level]. I'm trying to have a better year than last year."

Over the last two seasons, Baez has walked only 59 times vs. 311 strikeouts. And of those 59 free passes, 23 were intentional, which means the star infielder's "natural" walk rate is only 3.19 percent in that span. For perspective, the worst walk rate in the big leagues since the start of 2017 is Dee Gordon with 2.7 percent. No other qualified hitter had a walk rate lower than 3.3 percent.

Joe Maddon always says whenever Baez figures out how to organize the strike zone better, he can turn into Manny Ramirez as a hitter

But even beyond that, 2018 was a great learning season for the 26-year-old. He now has a better understanding on how to keep from wearing down at the end of a long season and came into camp looking even stronger.

"I kinda did get a little tired because a lot had to do with running the bases — I was trying to get 30 [stolen] bases and in the first half, other teams started spreading word about me on the bases," Baez said.

"I was kinda working a little bit more and I had a little bit of pressure on me. I was trying to do too much in the last month. Just trying to make an adjustment on that."