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.”

[RELATED: Cubs get back to normal, snap losing streak by beating up on lowly Reds]

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.”

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

The Brewers' best pitcher is in some serious hot water before the second half of the MLB season gets underway.

As he was serving up a 3-run homer in the All-Star Game Tuesday night, Josh Hader's Tweets from 2011 were aired publicly and the result was...not good.

Hader's Tweets as a 17-year-old reflected racist and homophobic remarks, among other issues. (A summary of his Tweets can be found at Deadspin.)

After the All-Star Game, Hader was immediately put in front of reporters to respond to the Tweets and admitted he will accept any punishment that comes his way — including any possible suspension:

He won't be suspended by the league and will instead under go sensitivity training, but this absolutely could affect Hader mentally moving forward. 

Case in point:

He can ask teammate Ryan Braun how to deal when fans turn on you, but it's going to be a lot more difficult for a 24-year-old in his first full big-league season to deal with any hate that comes down. 

Hader has been the Brewers' most valuable pitcher all season, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and a ridiculous 16.7 K/9. 

But over the last month-plus, he's been...human.

Ever since Jason Heyward turned on a 98 mph Hader fastball to tie the game in Milwaukee on June 11, the Brewers' relief ace has a 2.84 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 13.5 K/9.

Still great numbers, to be sure, but not the Superman-esque line baseball fans came to expect from Hader after the first couple months of 2018. (Plus, the All-Star Game homer he served up to Jean Segura, but that obviously doesn't count for anything.)

With the Brewers already chasing the Cubs by 2.5 games in the division in the second half, they can't afford Hader's slump to worsen.

Though Cubs fans may be rooting for that...

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.