How lucky are the Cubs to have Kyle Hendricks?
They got a glimpse Friday night when the right-hander became the first Cubs pitcher in 46 years to open a season with a complete game, beating the Brewers 3-0 at Wrigley Field with a three-hitter.
“Now you know why he’s a guy that you slot into the Opening Day starter role,” manager David Ross said.
An unflappable, precision pitcher with Ivy League smarts, who employs yoga, trusts sports psychology, out-pitched Clayton Kershaw to win a pennant and started the most celebrated Game 7 victory in World Series history — who else would a team want to lead its rotation in a 60-game sprint against the surreal backdrop of a global pandemic?
Lucky to have him?
That doesn’t begin to describe the story of how the Cubs wound up with a pitcher who became the first Cub with a complete game and shutout in an opener since Bill Bonham in 1974 — and who tied Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins for most strikeouts (nine) without a walk by a Cub in an opener (1969 against the Phillies).
“I talk about it a lot, amongst my family even,” said Hendricks, the major league ERA leader in 2016, whose 3.11 ERA since he broke into the majors in 2014 ranks seventh in the majors.
“There’s so much of this game you can attribute to luck and the path that you take,” he said. “Everybody’s path is different. I was super lucky just to have the trade work out to end up over in this organization.”
The Cubs, who last year signed Hendricks to a four-year, $55.5 million extension through 2023, certainly know how lucky they were to end up with an A-ball pitcher named Kyle Hendricks after spending weeks trying to trade veteran Ryan Dempster before the trade deadline in 2012.
In fact, if they’d had their way, Randal Delgado would have been a Cub in that trade after a deal with Atlanta was so close to final that then-Braves general manager Frank Wren thought it was. Wren was furious when the deal fell through — after Dempster awoke from a nap to discover the reported deal on social media then used his no-trade rights to veto it.
Dempster, a two-time All-Star now working as a Cubs front office special assistant, wanted to go to the Dodgers. The Dodgers didn’t want to make a deal. And it was only in the final moments before the July 31 deadline that the Cubs were able to scramble to close a deal with the Rangers for promising third baseman Christian Villanueva and the pitcher.
Why was Hendricks the other guy in the deal? A relationship with a former minor-league manager paid off with a glowing report on Hendricks.
“We had some really good information about his makeup, about his competitiveness, and that ultimately led to his name being the one that we talked about as the second player in the deal,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said.
“Listen, I think our process was really good in that situation,” Hoyer added. “I think we had good information. But obviously it went down to the last second, and we were incredibly fortunate.”
Fortunate — as in where would they be without Hendricks?
Imagine those four playoff runs without him. Imagine not having him for the 11 playoff games he pitched (2.98 ERA).
Imagine this team and its questionable starting depth, in this challenging season, without him.
Imagine Friday night without him setting a tone in a bizarre environment without fans in the stands and validating the decision to give him his first Opening Day start.
“That one’s definitely up there, for a lot of reasons,” Hendricks said of the 103-pitch effort, including just one pitch after his first-year manager and former teammate visited the mound with two out in the ninth — to offer him a breather and encouragement.
“But it’s just one,” Hendricks added. “It’s a really good way to start. It sets a good tone. Now we’ve just got to keep it going.”
When Ross announced his decision to start Hendricks in the opener, he raved about his growth, his fearlessness, his calmness, his ability to pitch, change speeds and manipulate sub-90s stuff to all corners of the strike zone.
“All those things I said about him, if that wasn’t on display tonight, I don’t know what was,” Ross said.
There was nothing lucky about what Hendricks did on Friday. He’s been doing it for years, and a curveball he’s been working on for the last few years never looked better.
But how he even wound up being here in the first place?
“I always think in this situation how Kyle has made us look incredibly good because ultimately he has gotten better and better and better each year,” Hoyer said.
Hendricks swears he sees the luck of that 2012 draw as mutual good fortune.
“There’s so many positives,” he said of joining the organization. “You just have to count your blessings sometimes that things work out the way they do.”