Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks is feeling as strong as he has all year and starting to pitch like it.
“Vintage Kyle,” his manager said for the second start in a row.
Which these days can mean only one thing: He’s pitching his way out of town by the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
No? All right, maybe the Cubs’ Game 7 starter for the most celebrated World Series championship in history won’t be traded.
But his starting catcher that November night in Cleveland in 2016 is firmly on the block. Three stars from that championship were shipped out at last year’s deadline.
And, as Hendricks told our Tim Stebbins this week, “You know things are going to come to an end at some point.”
So when he stacked another impressive, winning effort Thursday against the Reds on top of that scoreless start in St. Louis Friday, he not only helped the Cubs to back-to-back series victories for the first time in a month and a half, but he also started raising his trade value on the eve of July.
“Definitely,” he said. “There’s always a double-edged sword, man. Everybody can take a positive and turn it into a negative or take a negative and turn it into a positive.”
Exactly which outcome represents which edge of the sword is probably open to interpretation.
But this much is clear: Hendricks is right.
And the end is fast approaching, maybe for all three players left from the championship.
Contreras’ departure has seemed imminent since the club chose not to explore an extension during spring training and in fact took him to the final day before a midseason arbitration hearing before settling.
Outfielder Jason Heyward, who earned a place in history with his Game 7 rain-delay meeting and the ire of Cubs fans for his underperformance as the team bottomed out over the past year, went on the injured list Thursday with a knee injury of unspecified severity.
Amid months-long cries for his release, will he play again this season? Or ever for the Cubs?
And then there is Hendricks, the longest-tenured Cub in the building, who has another year after this one on his contract — and a big-game reputation that makes every next gem another reason for a contender to call during a summer when more teams than usual might be buyers as they eye an expanded playoff field.
“I don’t know if you could be prepared for it,” Hendricks (4-6) said after allowing two runs in six innings — including one during a slapstick fourth inning that led to a run that should have been unearned.
“But everything that went down last year really opened our eyes,” Hendricks said. “We saw what could happen.”
The Cubs were tied for first place on June 24, last 12 straight and traded off nine veteran players — including core fan-favorites Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez and Kris Bryant in the final 20 hours before the trade deadline.
Contreras said it was the lessons of last year — watching months of contract distractions play out with that group — that helped prepare him to stay focused during what has become a breakout season for him.
“That was something I worked on mentally during the offseason to not let those things bother me,” he said, adding that a not-insignificant part of his peace of mind has been a first season of having his family, including his parents and both his brothers all in the United States.
“That is a huge relief off my shoulders,” said the native of Venezuela. “It was hard for me to stay focused on baseball and thinking at the same time about my family all around the world. And not even Venezuela. Chile, Peru, Panama.”
So if this is it for the last three players from the championship in Cubs uniforms?
Contreras, who said he’d love to play another 10 years for the Cubs, is prepared — along with Hendricks and Heyward (who said recently he approaches it day-to-day like he does everything in life).
“I’m trying to not take anything personal,” Contreras said. “I’m really proud of the work I’ve been doing on that side of baseball.”
It might even pay off in October. For somebody.
That’s the thing about the bittersweet reality facing October heroes such as Contreras and Hendricks — if a move comes, it’ll be onto a bigger stage, into higher-stakes play, where they’ve thrived in the past.
None more than Hendricks, who beat Clayton Kershaw to win a pennant and Stephen Strasburg in the Cubs’ postseason opener the following year.
“We’re just really taking advantage of the time we have together, and whatever happens happens,” said Hendricks, who has allowed just Thursday’s two runs in 13 1/3 innings over his past two starters, with 13 strikeouts and two walks.
“If they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it,” Contreras said. “If they won’t do it, they won’t do it.”
Hendricks: “For us, we always kind of drown out the outside noise. And our focus is always on winning ballgames.”
Maybe even in a pennant race again by the time they wake up on Aug. 3.