MESA, Ariz. – It's March 4, 2017.

It's been four months and two days since Kyle Hendricks was taken out of Game 7 of the World Series in the fifth inning by Joe Maddon and he's still getting asked about it from fans.

Constantly.

"Pretty much everybody I run into, that's one of the first things [they say]," Hendricks said.

After throwing two completely stress-free innings in his Cactus League debut in the Cubs' 9-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers Saturday, Hendricks said fans were still yelling, "Why'd they take you out?" at him.

Every time that happens, Hendricks — who is extremely polite and one of the nicest guys in the game — has a stock response ready to go:

"I say, 'Hey, we won, right?' That's all that matters," Hendricks said. "I really just tell them I was expecting [Game 7] to be a short start going into it, which it was.

"You guys [the media] have heard it all before, but to hear it from fans sometimes, it gives you a little reassurance. It's good they're on your side."

He's got a point: It is validation, but it also represents a stark contrast to where the 27-year-old pitcher was for most of 2016, when fans couldn't tell him apart from the average accountant while he took public transit to and from work at Wrigley Field.

This time last year, Hendricks was in spring training fighting for a spot in the Cubs' rotation.

Now, he's the reigning National League ERA leader and a third-place finisher in Cy Young voting.

 

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Even though the situation has changed, Hendricks is still trying to keep the same mindset and maintain a chip on his shoulder.

He did admit, however, that it's weird to not have to fight for a spot for the first time in his career.

"You have to — I think Joe said it — you can't be too comfortable with it," Hendricks said. "I've had to make sure I'm pushing myself, be aware of where my pitches are at, making sure I have an angle on it. 

"You can't slow-play it. You wanna give yourself some time to get ready, but you can't take it so slow where you're not sharp for Day 1. ... The situation may have changed a little bit, but in my mind, I'm still just getting myself ready, doing the same things, throwing my bullpens, getting ready for the first day."

Hendricks said he's gotten enough throwing in this spring; he only tossed 16 pitches in two clean innings in Saturday's game, so he went back out to the bullpen and threw 40 more there.

One of Hendricks' main points of focus this spring is developing his curveball, so he can use it more in 2017, particularly late in counts. Last year, he felt like he used it more to open counts and set up hitters and not as much as a weapon to put guys away.

So yes, he does think there is room to improve on his 2016 season (16-8, 2.13 ERA, 0.979 WHIP). You don't even have to ask.

"You're always competing with yourself, in a way," Hendricks said. "As long as you don't focus on the outside factors. Focus on what you can control.

"For me, yeah, I'm always trying to raise the bar and get better. It's always a process. You gotta see what the hitters are giving you. That's really a big goal of mine — be aware of what the hitters are trying to do to me in spring and see what adjustments I can make."