MESA, Ariz. — Seven years after making an under-the-radar debut for the Cubs on a day remembered more for bench-clearing animus, even Kyle Hendricks feels like this is becoming his team.
“Definitely not,” he says.
OK, maybe not his “team,” but this has certainly become his pitching staff — especially after the high-profile departures of Yu Darvish and Jon Lester over the winter.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be like that,” Hendricks counters again during a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago. “That’s just not my personality.”
With all due respect to Hendricks and his persistent modesty, the right-hander’s ascent from overshadowed starter to staff ace arguably became complete when he was chosen to start Opening Day last summer over Darvish — and any remaining debate ended with the trade of Darvish to San Diego over the winter.
In fact, his manager made the point clear again Tuesday when he said Hendricks will make a second straight Opening Day start for the Cubs a week from Thursday against the Pirates.
“He’s the leader of our staff in my opinion,” manager David Ross said in making the formal Opening Day starter announcement. “His resumé, his leadership, his poise, all that goes into being the Opening Day starter with just the extra pomp and circumstance that goes into Opening Day, especially in this coming year as well, every arrow points to Kyle.”
Last year, Hendricks was the Cubs’ most prepared starter coming out of the COVID-19 shutdown and wound up with one of the best Opening Day starts in franchise history: a three-hitter to beat the Brewers 3-0 in the Cubs’ first complete game in an opener since 1974.
“I don’t know that I was expecting that,” Ross said.
That might as well be the title of Hendricks’ baseball memoirs someday.
On the day his six-inning debut barely merited a mention in the day’s media coverage because teammate Anthony Rizzo picked a fight with 25 Reds players, did anyone expect he would have a 3.12 career ERA seven years later?
Or that his 3.18 ERA since the start of 2015 would rank seventh in the majors — behind five guys with a combined 11 Cy Young awards and three-time All-Star Gerrit Cole?
Did anyone expect that scoreless outing to beat one of those Cy Young pitchers, Clayton Kershaw, and the Dodgers to clinch the 2016 pennant and World Series berth? Or that shut-down Game 7 start 11 days later (albeit, arbitrarily brief)?
Or the major-league ERA title in 2016? Or the Game 1 playoff start in 2017 as part of a staff that included Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey?
If anything, Hendricks has been exceeding expectations since the day he was acquired from Texas for Ryan Dempster as an A-ball player in 2012.
Without the power stuff of Arrieta or Darvish, or the top-prospect hype and postseason pedigree of Lester or Lackey, Hendricks toiled mostly in the shadows of the bigger lights on the staff over the years while never looking back after that debut.
And toiled mostly with exceptional results.
And if now is his time to finally, fully step out of those shadows and into the undisputed role of Cubs’ ace, the time might never be more important to his team and a new-look staff in transition.
And if that means starting the opener and setting the tone, well, “It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “We’ve got so many new faces in here, guys that really can pitch, just good, good players, good pitchers.”
So call him the Cubs’ reluctant ace.
But nobody’s more important to this pitching staff this season.
Especially as the front office eyes whatever the next competitive core might look like — with young pitchers such as Adbert Alzolay, Tyson Miller and Brailyn Marquez on deck for a shot at becoming the rare homegrown Cubs pitcher to stick.
That’s one area Hendricks is not reluctant as he embraces the role of veteran influencer.
“It’s always been part of my personality,” said the Dartmouth grad dubbed “The Professor” by teammates over the years. “We’ve had some really just big guys, big personalities on the pitching staff that have been around here for a few years. It’s been nice that they’ve always kind of taken the heat and the spotlight in a way.
“But I’ve always loved sitting down with young guys, talking baseball, talking pitching, just talking life — anything that’s going on outside the field, too.”
That role belongs to him like never before. Because this pitching staff is his, whether he looks at it like that or not.
Every bit as much as it once belonged to Lester or any of the other big names that came before.
And whether Hendricks can actually sense the heat (has he ever?), make no mistake: That spotlight is finally all his, too.