Cubs

Under-the-radar Kyle Hendricks pitching as good as any Cubs pitcher

Under-the-radar Kyle Hendricks pitching as good as any Cubs pitcher

By not lighting up the radar gun, Kyle Hendricks has managed to stay under the radar.

But make no mistake: Hendricks is pitching as good as anyone on the Cubs right now.

It might be surprising to realize, what with reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and reigning National League Pitcher of the Month Jon Lester filling the top two slots in the Cubs’ rotation. But Arrieta’s less-than-perfection has been well documented of late, and Lester is fresh off getting rocked by the New York Mets.

Hendricks, meanwhile, is dominating opposing lineups and keeping the scoreboard clean.

He’s the Cubs’ fifth starter, but don’t tell Joe Maddon that.

“I don’t even consider him (a fifth starter). This guy’s just a good starting pitcher. It’s a wonderful, classic example of not having to throw 90-some miles an hour to be effective," Maddon said. "It’s not often you see that right-hander doing what he’s doing right now. So give him credit, he’s been spot on with his command. … You’ve got to like everything he’s doing.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Hendricks’ latest performance was another beauty. He lasted just 5 1/3 innings against the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, but he allowed only one unearned run, keeping them away from home plate while the Cubs’ offense bashed out 12 hits and scored 10 runs in the 10-4 victory.

Hendricks has brought his ERA down to 2.61 on the season, among the NL leaders and with only Arrieta’s 2.33 better on the Cubs' starting staff. For the ninth straight start, Hendricks allowed three or fewer earned runs, something he’s failed to do just twice this season in 16 starts. And in those two games he allowed just four.

“I just try and take every game individually. I’ve been on a little bit of a roll,” Hendricks said. “But I’ve been getting good work in in between starts, and when I’m out there it’s just been simple thoughts, make good pitches.

“Results obviously bring confidence. At the same time, you can’t live off results. So every time I go out there, I’m just trying to simplify as much as possible. That’s having one thought: Make good pitches. When I’m out there, even if I get a bad result, as long as it was a good pitch, that’s what I’m trying to focus on and move forward from there.”

Arrieta and Lester will both surely be on the NL All-Star team, but it’s worth noting that they aren’t the only two deserving Cubs hurlers. Up until his rough outing in New York, Jason Hammel probably fell into that category, too, and Hendricks certainly has shown he’s All-Star caliber — and maybe even pitching better than all those guys right now.

“It’s so fun to watch from the side because you see the reaction by the hitter when he makes a pitch that they take that they know is a strike but there’s not a whole lot they could’ve done with it,” Maddon said. “The late-swinging foul balls, the uncertainty of what the pitch was going to be. He’s doing a great job of mixing it up, varying speeds, hitting his spots. I don’t think he could pitch any better than he is right now.”

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Hendricks has been in good stretches before. Last season, his ERA was down to 3.44 in mid-July before turning back up over the final two and a half months of the season. But there’s no doubt this season has been different, and Hendricks feels it, too.

“Last year I definitely didn’t know myself as well as I do right now,” Hendricks said. “Again, I kind of got out of my mechanics. When you know yourself a little better each time, you can get out of them but get back in them quicker. There have been times this year where I wasn’t sharp, but I was able to not let it waver too far. I was able to get right back in my slot, so that’s been big this year.”

Don’t expect to see Hendricks pitching for the NL next week in San Diego. Leave that to Arrieta and Lester. In Hendricks’ own words, he’s the fifth starter on this team, and he’s happy to let others demand attention while he continues to go under the radar.

“On this team, I definitely am (the fifth starter),” Hendricks said. “I’m the five guy, and that’s where I am right now, which is fine. I don’t really think about it like that.

“I just know when (Maddon) gives me the ball, I’m going out and doing whatever I can do — keeping the team in the game, making good pitches. That’s just my role.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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