Cubs

Kyle Hendricks takes a page out of Jon Lester's book for NLDS Game 2

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Kyle Hendricks takes a page out of Jon Lester's book for NLDS Game 2

Kyle Hendricks has never pitched in the postseason, so why not take a page out of the book of a teammate who's made a career of pitching in October?

Jon Lester approaches every start the same, keeping things on an even keel and emotions in check.

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With Lester getting the ball in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Hendricks will try to follow along in the veteran's footsteps in Game 2 Saturday.

"[I don't approach things] differently," Hendricks said. "It's a postseason game, but I'm still going out to the mound, 60-feet, six inches away, doing my same game.

"I've faced these guys a few times, so just gotta get my gameplan together and do my same routine going into [Saturday].

Hendricks finished the season with an 8-7 record, 3.95 ERA and 1.161 WHIP, but he struggled with bouts of inconsistency throughout the season and his nod as the Cubs' Game 2 starter was something of a surprise to some.

The 25-year-old right-hander beat out veterans Jason Hammel (who may go in Game 4) and Dan Haren, who have combined to make 11 postseason appearances in their careers.

But Hendricks wasn't surprised.

"We've been thinking about what would happen during the series for a while and I've been preparing myself for any possibilities, so I wasn't caught off guard," Hendricks said.

"I'm definitely excited. I'm glad they gave me this opportunity and hopefully I can just give my team a chance to win [Saturday]."

Hendricks has a 4.44 ERA in the second half, but had a 3.03 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 32.2 innings over the final month.

When explaining his reasoning for giving Hendricks the ball in Game 2, Maddon cited the young right-hander's command.

"He was in better counts, just more strike-throwing with that sinker/fastball and that setup - his changeup - and the use of his breaking ball, also," Maddon said. "That's it. I mean, I like to go simple."

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Maddon said he anticipates Hendricks will elicit a lot of groundballs from St. Louis hitters and some swings and misses on changeups. The Cubs need Hendricks to step up now that they are facing a 1-0 deficit in the series after Friday night's 4-0 loss.

"Tomorrow is a new day," David Ross said. "We got Kyle on the mound. if we split this series here, it's all positive. We got two in Chicago, so we'll try to get back to Chicago with a W."

Hendricks only faced the Cardinals once in the regular season, giving up four runs in five innings without factoring in the decision.

Still, it's not like he really needs an updated gameplan. The Cubs have seen plenty of the Cardinals this season.

"They're the best team in baseball, right?" Hendricks said. "They have the most wins, a really good, experienced lineup. They put together an unbelievable plan.

"They know how to attack whatever pitcher they're facing that day, so when you're facing these guys, you've gotta be thinking when you're on the mound.

"You gotta be in tune with the game, in tune with what they're trying to do, the at-bats they're putting together against you and make in-game adjustments. That's what it's all about."

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.