Cubs fans know it by now, but postseason success often hinges on pitching prowess.
While the starting staff was the cause of much consternation early this season, the North Siders are perhaps as well positioned as any National League team, when it comes to starting pitching, heading into the postseason. And if you’re looking for the most dominant starter in the bunch, the guy who teams go to multiple times in a best-of-seven series, right now it’s Kyle Hendricks.
Hendricks dazzled again Friday, starting an all-important series with the rival Cardinals in lights-out fashion. He tossed eight innings, scattering seven hits and allowing just two runs. It was the latest in a line of performances that have had a dominant postseason vibe. He’s been completely shutting down opposing lineup, with a 1.66 ERA in his last eight starts, and he just missed reaching a pitcher’s favorite milestone: 200 innings in a season.
In the postseason — and with the Cubs’ offense as inconsistent as it’s been the last month — that kind of performance makes the difference between a win and a loss, the difference in the flow of a series.
Hendricks has to have every Cubs backer thrilled as October arrives, looking as good as the guy who was an NL Cy Young finalist the last time a pitching staff powered the Cubs to a championship — if not better.
“It’s hard to say that,” manager Joe Maddon said when asked if the current version of Hendricks is throwing better than he did when he led the Senior Circuit in ERA back in 2016. “Certainly that was pretty spectacular. I think he’s more physical, if that makes any sense, right now. … I just see a repetition of delivery, stronger version of him.”
“I feel really good,” Hendricks said. “Usually, I kind of get stronger as the year goes on. This year, I feel that even more so, in a way. My last three outings, I’m just pitching to contact a lot better and really in that good mindset of one pitch at a time, not getting ahead of myself. I really wasn’t doing a great job of that earlier in the year, but that’s kind of locked in lately. So as long as I can keep that mindset, it should be good.”
As mentioned, the value of this kind of starting pitching is not news to Cubs fans, who watched one of the best rotations in team history lead the 2016 team to a title. The reliability of Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta allowed that team to wind up with a championship parade that fall.
Well, two of those guys are still pitching for the North Siders, and after their respective bumps in the road this season — Hendricks had a 7.03 ERA in June; Lester gave up 26 earned runs in fewer than 23 starts over a five-outing stretch coming out of the All-Star break — they’ve pitched remarkably down the stretch. And don't forget Cole Hamels, who has found new life since coming over in a midseason trade and boasts the experience of taking the Phillies to a World Series championship a decade ago.
As the stakes get higher and the season goes deeper, the pitchers who have done this before are once again the biggest positive for this Cubs team.
“Guys that have been there, done that, you can see when they go out there they’re not nervous, they’re just eager, more eager than nervous. It doesn’t get too fast,“ Maddon said. “They’re able to take their A-game out there and execute, and if things go awry, like it did for us today, he just held his own and got back on the horse. Guys that have been there, done that, you can feel it. You can feel it in the dugout, you can see it on the field.”
“This is what you live for,” Hendricks said. “These are the games you want to play in, games that have meaning like this. That’s why we play the game. So hopefully we have a lot of these left. I know we’ve got two more coming up the next two days that are big.”
Should the Cubs win the division crown, Hendricks will likely go in Game 2 of the NLDS, after Lester. That’s a pretty strong 1-2 punch and a big-time challenge for whichever team would come out of the wild card game. If the Cubs are playing in that game, Lester figures to be the one to make that start with all his postseason experience. But Hendricks has gathered his own strong resume of playoff experience. Heck, he’s the guy who started Game 7 of the World Series back in 2016.
The Cubs have questions going into the postseason, surely, and the fan base's worry in recent weeks hasn’t been unwarranted. But if the Cubs can make it through the National League side of the playoff bracket and reach the World Series again, they’ll have a couple arms that matchup nicely with the best the American League has to offer. Hendricks is perhaps the best of them right now.
Of course, you won’t catch Hendricks and the Cubs thinking that far ahead.
“We always know what we have. No matter how we’ve been playing, we know what’s in that room and we always have confidence in that,” he said. “So whether we’re going through a bad stretch, whether we’re playing great, we know coming in this day is all we have to focus on. We do a really good job of that, prioritizing what’s first, and that’s one game after another. I know the guys, they’ll come in with the same mindset tomorrow: Just try to win that ballgame.”