For six innings, Kyle Hendricks showed why he was the right man for the job in Game 1 — the right decision by David Ross, who chose Hendricks over Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish.
But the only decision the first-year manager will be remembered for in this game — in this postseason if the Cubs don’t win back-to-back elimination games — is the one he made in the seventh inning Wednesday that cost the Cubs a lead in a 5-1 loss to the beleaguered Marlins.
That might not be fair. But that’s what Ross signed up for when he took the job — and when he went against the grain in the seventh, leaving Hendricks to face the top of the order with a season-high pitch count after back-to-back, one-out hits that put him in a high-stress jam for the fourth consecutive inning.
It might seem especially unfair given that the Cubs’ once-proud core of All-Star hitters were the biggest causes of the high-leverage crisis in the first place by doing next to nothing against Marlins right-hander Sandy Alcantara all day in yet another playoff no-show by the lineup.
But they had a one-run lead in the seventh with the Game 1 starter at the end of his string and a fresh bullpen in play.
And didn’t hold it.
“I trust in Kyle right there,” Ross said of his bottom-line rationale with left-handed leadoff man Corey Dickerson up.
And that’s definitely fair.
If Hendricks proved anything on a day he said he wasn’t as sharp as he had been in some recent starts it was that he’s the big-game pitcher that Ross envisioned when calling on Hendricks to open the best-of-three micro-series.
But Hendricks had pitched out of jams in the fourth, fifth and sixth after the tying or go-ahead run had reached scoring position with nobody out in each case. Asking him to pitch out of another one after allowing one sharp single on his 100th pitch and a second on his 105th was asking too much.
By the time the moment arrived, veteran right-hander Jeremy Jeffress was warmed up in the bullpen. But by the time Ross went to him, Hendricks had allowed the three-run homer to Dickerson on a first-pitch, belt-high 87-mph fastball over the middle of the plate.
“When you’re looking at it before the inning starts, you’re going to give him through [the 7-8-9 hitters], and then you start to look at Dickerson and you start to talk through the righty-lefty matchup,” Ross said, “but with the three-batter minimum now, how far do you want one of your lefties to go if you bring him in for Dickerson with [Starling] Marte sitting behind him and some big boys if things don’t work out?
“You trust in the guy that got you there,” said Ross, who liked the Hendricks-Dickerson history and what he saw the first three times Wednesday (4-for-18 career with a walk Wednesday before the homer).
But a fourth look, after he’d already walked him in the third trying to stay out of his danger zone — with nobody on base?
“I’ve trusted him all year long, and he’s done nothing but perform,” Ross said.
Ross obviously trusted him more than bullpen options that have been light from the left side all year. And this year’s new rule requiring relievers to face at least three batters created a problematic layer.
And Jeffress was greeted by a Marte single, followed by a Jesús Aguilar home run when he eventually was called after the emotional whiplash moment Dickerson delivered.
And, again, the lineup owns the biggest share of blame for this loss — after scoring exactly one run for the sixth time in its last seven postseason games going back to the 2017 playoffs (counting the Game 163 tiebreaker against the Brewers in 2018).
But right or wrong, the head-scratching decision with Hendricks will be what Ross’ first playoff series as a manager will be remembered for if the Cubs don’t pull off back-to-back elimination-game wins.
Not that he would be the first Cubs manager with memorable, infamous playoff head-scratchers, from Dusty Baker leaving starter Mark Prior in the eighth inning for four more batters after the Game 6 foul ball incident in 2003 against the Marlins to Lou Piniella pulling Carlos Zambrano from a 1-1 game at 85 pitches through six innings to save him for a Game 4 that never was played (in part because of the home run Carlos Marmol gave up four pitches later).
And Joe Maddon still catches grief for the way he handled his pitching staff in Games 6 and 7 of a World Series the Cubs actually won.
That’s a potential Hall of Fame class of managers, so Ross at least is in good company.
But it might take a few more notches on his managing belt before this one starts to fade.
A few early runs by his pals in that All-Star core of hitters the next day or two wouldn’t hurt.