“I don’t want to sound like an a--hole or anything,” Jon Lester would say at the beginning of October, “but we haven’t really done anything yet.” The Cubs ace raised the expectations to World Series or bust when he signed with a last-place team during the 2014 winter meetings, insisting the entire clubhouse would trade in all the individual accolades for championship rings.
Kyle Hendricks admired the way Tom Brady went from a backup quarterback at the University of Michigan to a sixth-round draft pick to a three-time Super Bowl MVP with the New England Patriots, always playing with a chip on his shoulder and never being underprepared. But even Hendricks never saw this coming, reporting to spring training as a fifth starter and ending his breakthrough season by starting Game 7 of the World Series.
In many ways, Lester and Hendricks are very different. Lester is left-handed, almost six years older, a cancer survivor, emotional on the mound and shaped by the intense pressure he used to feel inside the Boston Red Sox organization. While Lester has a $155 million contract, Hendricks is the Dartmouth College graduate who dissects hitters with the blank look of someone running errands on Southport Avenue, where he could walk down the street this summer largely unnoticed.
But Lester and Hendricks can both clearly see the big picture and will be bonded forever as part of The Team that ended a 108-year drought. They certainly won’t be crushed by the news that Max Scherzer is this year’s National League Cy Young Award winner.
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America revealed the results on Wednesday night, with Scherzer getting 25 of 30 first-place votes and 192 points in a landslide victory. Lester (102 points) and Hendricks (85 points) finished second and third in a vote that took place before the playoffs started.
“I’d trade it for what Lester and Hendricks have — that World Series ring,” Scherzer said during the MLB Network announcement show.
Always a cerebral student, Hendricks (16-8) moved outside his comfort zone and added new wrinkles to his game, keeping hitters off-balance through unpredictable pitch sequences and attacking them with two- and four-seam fastballs, curveballs and changeups.
That command, conviction and creativity — plus a shutdown defense — led to an ERA title (2.13), a 0.979 WHIP, the majors’ highest percentage of soft contact induced (25.1 percent, according to FanGraphs) and the lowest opponents’ OPS (.581).
“Our starting pitching really carried us for most of the season,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “Hendricks’ growth, I thought, was a big story of the season, and especially in the postseason, when you compare where he was this October to last October, in terms of his endurance and the weapons that he had to attack good-hitting lineups.
“His performance this October versus last October was an obvious, significant step forward.”
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By the NL Championship Series, Clayton Kershaw called him “the Greg Maddux of this generation.” Hendricks responded by beating the three-time Cy Young Award winner in Game 6, limiting the Los Angeles Dodgers to two hits across 7 1/3 scoreless innings and helping the Cubs win their first pennant in 71 years.
“It’s watching him really, truly control a ballgame,” said special assistant Ryan Dempster, who approved a trade to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline on July 31, 2012, allowing the Cubs to grab a Class-A pitcher no one envisioned as a top-of-the-rotation starter four years later.
“Before, he’d hit his spots and do his things. But now he’s really controlling the pace, the tempo. (It’s) like back-and-forth as good as probably you’ve ever seen. Side-to-side is not his game. It’s take a little off here, add some here, and trusting his defense.
“He’s been lights-out. Consistent. Early on in the year, I know people say he wasn’t pitching deep into ballgames. That’s not his fault. Every time he’s been asked to take the ball and do his job, he (did) it.”
Scherzer led the NL with 20 wins, 284 strikeouts and 228 1/3 innings — or almost 40 more than Hendricks — while carrying the Nationals toward a division title. This will go with the American League Cy Young Award Scherzer won with the Detroit Tigers in 2013.
On a night where supermodel Kate Upton ranted on Twitter after her fiancé, Detroit ace Justin Verlander, lost the AL Cy Young vote to ex-Tiger/Red Sox right-hander Rick Porcello, both Lester and Hendricks posted classy messages on their social-media accounts.
Hard to argue with that! Congrats to @Max_Scherzer on winning the NL Cy Young! You've won it enough now, time to let others have a turn 😉.— Jon Lester (@JLester34) November 17, 2016
Scherzer vs. Lester had been a fascinating case study in the free-agent market, with a Boston-centric front office going with the ex-Red Sox they already knew so well and betting on his mechanics and delivery without having to pay the draft-pick compensation.
Weeks after the Cubs signed Lester to the biggest contract in franchise history, the Nationals did a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with Boras Corp. that contains a significant amount of deferred money.
After a dominant regular season — 19-5, 2.44 ERA, 200-plus innings for the eighth time in his career — Lester started Game 1 in all three playoff rounds. He became the NLCS co-MVP and the bridge from Hendricks to superstar closer Aroldis Chapman in Game 7 against the Cleveland Indians.
“It’s very rare that someone shows up and does exactly what you hope,” Epstein said. “Outside of a small hiccup in April of 2015, he’s been a dominant, elite starting pitcher (and a) reliable, hard worker. He pitches his best in the big games.
“And I thought his poise in several key postseason games rubbed off on a lot of other people.”
About two hours after the Cubs won the World Series, Lester stood in a cramped hallway inside Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse, knowing that his life would never be the same again.
“We got the ’16 ring for the 108 years of the Chicago Cubs,” Lester said. “There’s not a price in the damn (world that) you could sell that thing for.”