PITTSBURGH – The Cubs have gone from the happy-to-be-here team that crashed last year’s playoff party to a 100-win machine that’s expected to win the World Series or else be remembered as underachievers.
The evolution of Kyle Hendricks from a fifth starter to a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate helps explain why the Cubs have lived up to the preseason hype. Kris Bryant not resting on his Rookie of the Year campaign and following it up with an MVP-level performance also created these expectations for October.
“It’s not too often that you get this much talent in one room on one team,” Bryant said after Monday night’s 12-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “We need to realize what we have here and be grateful for it. I certainly am. I couldn’t have pictured a better first two years in the big leagues.”
The Cubs won’t be leaving their season up to the coin flip of a wild-card game, the way they did 355 days ago at PNC Park, where it almost looks like the Pirates (77-79) still haven’t recovered. What once appeared to be a circle-your-calendar showdown that could decide the National League Central is now glorified spring training for the Cubs in late September.
The Cubs reached 100 wins for the first time since 1935 with Hendricks throwing six scoreless innings to lower his major-league-leading-ERA to 1.99 ERA, and Bryant hitting his 39th homer to surpass the 100-RBI mark after finishing with 99 last year.
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
This is the type of star-studded team where Javier Baez can break the game wide open with a grand slam in the fourth inning – and finish with six RBI – and reporters still don’t have enough time to interview him in the postgame clubhouse.
This is also the type of confident group where Bryant can tell Chris Coghlan pregame that he’d hand over all the money in his wallet if the leadoff guy scored on his 100th RBI. That’s why Coghlan interrupted Bryant at his locker and wanted to get paid, telling the media: “Don’t let him fool you, he’s rich."
Or where three-time Manager of the Year Joe Maddon can approach a confused Hendricks after the fourth inning – not to offer some profound insight into the art of pitching – but to instead settle a question among the coaching staff in the dugout: What’s the Dartmouth College mascot?
“After he did not go to third base on that groundball, I went up to him and said, ‘Now, if I were to go to Dartmouth and went to the bookstore…’” Maddon recalled. “And he says, ‘Yeah, I’d go…’
“I said, ‘No, it has nothing to do with going first to third. If I were to go to the bookstore and I picked up a T-shirt, what would the nickname say on the front of it?’ And he said: ‘The Big Green.’
“So I learned something.”
Hendricks didn’t have to block out the blackout atmosphere or silence an announced crowd of 20,519 surrounded by sections of empty seats. A quiet, polite Ivy League graduate would never troll Pittsburgh fans on Twitter the way Jake Arrieta did last year. But the Cubs are witnessing another historic run that could catapult them through October.
The Cubs are riding the wave that always begins with starting pitching – teammate Jon Lester ranks second in the majors with a 2.28 ERA and lines up as the Game 1 starter in front of Hendricks. Now Hendricks has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his last 22 starts, putting up a 16-8 record, a 0.97 WHIP and 185 innings during this breakthrough season.
“Obviously, we did not anticipate all of this,” Maddon said. “He’s really exceeded, and good for him. This is something I think he can carry on for years. This is by no means a fluke. It’s not an anomaly. This is how good he’s capable of being. So it’s made a big difference that he’s been able to do what he’s done this year. No question.”
Both Hendricks, an A-ball pitcher at the time, and Bryant came out of the ashes of a 101-loss season in 2012, with Ryan Dempster approving a trade to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline and the Cubs using the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft on the University of San Diego slugger who would become a superstar.
Theo Epstein’s front office constructed the best team in baseball ahead of schedule with polished, unselfish, intelligent athletes like Bryant and Hendricks. One hundred wins is nice, but…
“You guys know what this team’s like and where we want to go,” Hendricks said. “It’s just another step on the way.”