The more the Cubs’ lineup sputters, the more the Cubs need Kyle Hendricks to pitched like a Game 1 playoff ace, the way he did most of Wednesday night.
Even if it was only against the lousy Pirates — and more to the point, even if it wasn’t good enough to win.
Right now Hendricks is the closest thing to championship-caliber the Cubs have as they plan for a wide-open playoff field, and if they have anything else of that caliber, maybe Yu Darvish will offer a look at it Friday when he faces the White Sox in his final-regular season start.
“We know that we want to be those two guys,” said Hendricks, who allowed back-to-back homers leading off Wednesday’s start and nothing else in 7 2/3 innings of a 2-1 loss — finishing the season with a 2.88 ERA, including 1.45 in five September starts.
“But, really, everyone’s been throwing well,” added Hendricks, who is lined up for a likely Game 1 start Wednesday on six days rest — and what would be his first playoff start since a 2017 elimination loss to Darvish and the Dodgers.
“Overall, the pitching staff is right where we need to be,” said Hendricks, who likely will work an inning or so out of the bullpen Sunday. “But Darvish and I talk about that a lot. We’re really excited to go into these playoffs and see what we can do.”
For seven starts spanning more than a month, Darvish was the most dominant pitcher in the National League (the league’s Pitcher of the Month in August). And that was after Hendricks opened the Cubs’ season with a three-hit shutout.
The concern then was whether they would find competitive starting depth beyond that for the playoffs.
And now that Jon Lester has resurrected his season the last three starts, Alec Mills has discovered no-hit stuff and José Quintana has returned from the latest of two injuries, the focus returns to Darvish.
Because if he is merely good — as he has been in his last three starts — the Cubs probably aren’t going to be good enough.
The way this limping, saggy lineup looks heading into the final few games before October, their path to winning series would seem to come in two forms:
Praying they’ll find a way to slug and score against the middle and back end of opponents’ rotations with no off days scheduled in-series the first three rounds of the postseason;
And praying they’ll find a way to win 1-0 and 2-1 games when facing the front ends of those rotations, particularly in a best-of-three, first-round series.
Which make Hendricks and Darvish the most significant keys to the postseason — and Darvish the biggest X factor as he enters his start against the Sox.
Darvish is winless in his last three starts, with a 4.26 ERA and 1.32 WHIP after going 7-1 with a 1.44 ERA and 0.88 WHIP his first eight starts.
He said after his last start — a loss to the Twins and first non-quality start since his season debut — that his cutter hasn’t felt as good as it had been during the last three starts but that he’s not worried and hasn’t changed his routine.
Even in the Twins game, he produced shutdown results from the end of the second through the sixth — retiring 13 of 15 until allowing a double and homer leading off the seventh.
“But still my job is to get the win,” he said. “And I’m not doing that the last three games. so I have to start doing something different.”
Maybe that starts Friday.
And maybe that will — with Hendricks — give the Cubs at least two wings and a prayer in October.