Cubs

Why Cubs could bet on Kyle Hendricks in Game 1 vs. Max Scherzer and Nationals: 'Ice in his veins'

Why Cubs could bet on Kyle Hendricks in Game 1 vs. Max Scherzer and Nationals: 'Ice in his veins'

ST. LOUIS – The Deadspin headline this summer said it all: “Max Scherzer Is An Intense Weirdo.” The featured clips showed the Washington Nationals ace snarling at a hitter and barking out stream-of-consciousness curse words at the beginning of his violent delivery.

Kyle Hendricks has such a blank look on his face when he pitches that it’s hard to tell if it’s spring training or the playoffs. That’s exactly why the Cubs would have as much confidence in Hendricks starting a big game as Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta, the same way the Nationals expect to win when Scherzer grips the ball and unleashes the fury and the arsenal of pitches that got him a $210 million megadeal.

“Absolutely,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He pitched Game 7 of the World Series with ice in his veins.”

Hendricks vs. Scherzer would be a fascinating clash of styles in a Cubs-Nationals playoff series already loaded with personalities, star power and pressure points. But whether it’s a game that means everything to generations of fans around the globe – or a Thursday at a dead Busch Stadium the night after the Cubs celebrated their National League Central title – it doesn’t matter to Hendricks.

“He might be pitching as well as anybody in the National League right now,” Maddon said before watching Hendricks throw five scoreless innings against a desperate St. Louis Cardinals team that got eliminated from the wild-card race when a Cactus League crew closed out a 2-1 win in the 11th inning.

Maddon insisted he hasn’t been floating trial balloons, even though it almost sounded like a Game 1 endorsement for a pitcher who has put up a 2.19 ERA in 13 starts since coming off the disabled list (right hand tendinitis) in late July.

“Everybody’s in play,” Maddon said. “We haven’t decided anything yet. I’ve been saying consistently that I think he’s throwing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him pitch. Even though he went through a potential Cy Young year last year – which was outstanding – I have not seen this combination of velocity/location.

“Earlier in the year when his fastball was 83-84 (mph), I was concerned about deception off the fastball to the changeup. Now you see that wider spread, and you see these guys just taking strikes. When he’s really going good, that’s what you see, the take and there’s no argument. The hitter knows.

“Now we’re seeing 88s, 89s and that’s why the changeup and the curve have gotten so much better.”

At a time when Lester is going through inexplicable control issues and insisting he’s fine physically, and Arrieta is still recovering from the Grade 1 right hamstring strain he suffered on Labor Day, and Jose Quintana has never started a playoff game before, the Cubs have a clear idea of what they can expect from the Dartmouth College graduate with an economics degree.

“A hundred percent, I’m ready,” said Hendricks, who struck out nine of the 19 hitters he faced while walking only one. “When you’re locked in, you take every game just as another game. Even if it’s a Game 1, my focus is just make good pitches.

“Whenever I’m out there, read the situation, know what I have to do, know my game plan and rely on my preparation.

“I’m right where I need to be going into the playoffs. If they want to give me the ball Game 1, great, but whenever they give it to me, I’m going to be ready.”

Because Hendricks already started the biggest game of his life and has grown from the experience, resembling the pitcher who led the majors with a 2.13 ERA last year and beat Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers on the night the Cubs won their first NL pennant in 71 years.    

“He’s steady,” Rizzo said. “He’s consistent. Good start, bad start, indifferent, he’s doing his homework before the games. He has a plan out there and he sticks to his plan. If he doesn’t have one of those pitches one night, he can make in-game adjustments. He spots up all the time.

“He’ll be ready for any atmosphere or any environment. Any situation that he’s put in, he’ll be ready.”    

The Cubs left St. Louis as a 90-win team, ending the flickering playoff hopes for the Cardinals with Taylor Davis getting the game-winning double, Jen-Ho Tseng earning his first big-league win and Leonys Martin making a spectacular, leaping, game-ending catch at the center-field wall to steal a home run from Paul DeJong.        

The Cubs will now have a week to decompress, break down the Nationals from every angle and then ramp it back up again on Oct. 6 at Nationals Park. Don’t be surprised if it’s Hendricks vs. Scherzer.    

“He assimilates his adrenaline in different methods as opposed to most other people,” Maddon said. “His manifestation is different. That was like effusively happy out there all night long. He’s just so able to control. He’s just that guy that channels his inner energy so well. His focus is so strong and his mental commitment to himself is so strong. He’s a different animal.”

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

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USA TODAY

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

The NL Central keeps getting better this offseason.

According to multiple reports, the Reds have traded for pitcher Sonny Gray from the Yankees.

The Reds have been active this offseason and adding a former all-star to their rotation would be another big step towards turning the Reds into contenders in what is shaping up to be a very tough NL Central in 2019. They already added Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers.

Gray is 29 and has a career ERA of 3.66, but isn't coming off a good year. With the Yankees he had a 4.90 ERA, the second-highest of his career, and didn't pitch in the postseason. The last time Gray had a bad year, he bounced back. Gray had a 5.69 ERA in 2016, the year after his breakout all-star campaign in 2015, but was solid in 2017 with the A's and Yankees.

Coming off a 95-loss season, the Reds had a long way to go, but look to be improved on paper with those additions.

Elsewhere in the division, the Cardinals already added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller and the defending division champion Brewers added marquee free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Meanwhile, it has been mostly crickets for the Cubs this offseason. Owner Tom Ricketts recently defended the team's financial situation, which has led to the team appearing to be less aggressive this winter.

It looks like the Cubs will face increased competition in the division this season. Will that force the team's hand to be more aggressive before spring training?

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Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader."