No one would have blamed Cubs fans if the sharp crack of the bat two pitches into Monday’s game had set their stomachs churning.
Beyond Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs starting rotation has been an abyss of uncertainty lately. So, if Hendricks wasn’t on his game Monday, the Cubs were going to be in trouble.
But that hard contact to start the game was misleading. Hendricks was the rock the Cubs needed to pull off a 5-1 win over the Cardinals, snapping a three-game losing streak.
“That’s the version of Kyle that we’re used to seeing,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I thought he read swings really well tonight. He went in, in the right counts. Really did a good job mixing his pitches in and out. I thought he commanded the fastball as good as I’ve seen this year maybe since his first start.”
Hendricks allowed just one run in eight innings Monday. The quintessential Hendricks outing included balls in play and no walks. It was Hendricks’ 38th consecutive game with two or fewer walks, a franchise record.
“It was really important for us,” Cubs shortstop Javier Báez said of Monday’s win.
It wasn’t just any win. It was an overdue defense of the Cubs’ No. 1 spot in the NL Central. With Monday’s victory, the Cubs put 2 1/2 games between them and the second-place Cardinals.
The Cubs and Cardinals won’t meet again in the regular season, but after splitting the regular season series, they’re positioned to battle for the top seed in the division for the rest of September.
The Cardinals (17-16) returned from their COVID-19 outbreak earlier in the season with a vengeance and still have six doubleheaders left on their schedule. The Cubs (24-18) have two starting pitchers on the IL, and two of their healthy starters (Jon Lester and Alec Mills) allowed a combined 18 runs in the last two turns of the rotation.
“In the back of your mind, you know the importance of the game,” Hendricks said. “You know what we’ve got coming up – no off days, so a tax on the bullpen. You have that in the back of your mind, but you can’t pitch that way. Today, much better mentally to start, was aggressive.”
Hendricks hadn’t quite been himself lately either, battling through issues with his timing and changeup in his last two starts. But both were in sync on Monday.
“We’ve kind of gone this year the way our starting pitching’s gone,” Ross said.
That was true again Monday as the Cubs racked up 10 hits and the defense fortified behind Hendricks.
Before the game, the infield had worked with bench coach Andy Green on turning double plays.
“It was a great moment for the team,” Báez said, adding that pitchers and outfielders were on the field at the same time.
The Cubs saw immediate results. In the fourth inning, with the Cubs playing in the shift, third baseman Kris Bryant fielded a ground ball to the right of second base and flipped it out of his glove to Báez, who fired to first. According to Báez, they had practiced that exact play earlier in the day.
The Cubs then turned inning-ending double plays in the sixth and seventh on ground balls to second baseman Nico Hoerner.
“One win isn’t going to put us back where we need to be,” Ross said, “but we’re moving the right direction.”