Cubs

Kyle Hendricks overwhelmed the Cardinals with one of the best pitching performances of the season

Kyle Hendricks overwhelmed the Cardinals with one of the best pitching performances of the season

Maybe Kyle Hendricks had a late afternoon tee time.

Or maybe Hendricks wanted to give the 34,000+ in attendance at Wrigley Field a Friday afternoon to remember -- a reward for the long, soaking-wet week of staying up to watch West Coast baseball.

Whatever the reason, Hendricks pitched masterfully in a complete-game shutout that was over in less than 2.5 hours. It was the 4th complete game of his career, and completed in the fewest pitches (81!) since Jon Lieber threw 78 against the Reds 18 years ago. 

“It just doesn’t happen,” Maddon said after the Cubs’ 4-0 over St. Louis. “Their game plan obviously was to swing early, and he didn’t walk anyone. That was the big thing - no walks.” 

He spotted his sinker effectively all game, and against a lineup overflowing with right-handed hitters was able to induce a lot of weak contact early in the count. According to MLB’s Statcast numbers, the three hardest hit balls against Hendricks were all groundouts. The top four hitters in St. Louis’ lineup combined to go 0-15. Not a single Cardinals runner reached second base. 

"Really masterful job,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “Tip your hat - he did a nice job. He really did. That was the art of pitching - controlling counts, changing speeds, in and out of the zone, had our guys off balance. Did a really nice job against a really good lineup."

Hendricks threw what’s affectionately known as a ‘Maddux’: a complete game shutout in less than 100 pitches. For the sake of authenticity, the righty did it all without throwing a pitch over 90 miles per hour, too. 

“Lucky I got one,” he said with a smile. “Every time I go out there, I’m trying to get early contact and early outs. When it happens to go this way you can say, ‘Look, I did it,’ but it’s a little lucky too. There were a lot of hard hit balls early in the count that were right at guys.” 

Hendricks’ outings always require the defense behind him to stay on their toes, and the Cubs were up to the task on Friday. Whether it was a slick backhanded play from the deep left side of the infield or a diving catch on a sinking outfield line drive, the Cubs’ defensive prowess was well on display. 

“KB had a really nice game at third base,” Maddon said. “Jason in center field had a couple plays. Descalso, Javy to his left. We played our defense, which is what we have to do.” 

Even with the stellar defense -- and Anthony Rizzo’s eighth home run of the year, a three-run shot that just snuck over the right field foul pole -- the star of the day was Hendricks. 18 of his 81 pitches were called strikes, and it was the first complete game shutout at Wrigley in almost three years. 

“From the start, it started with my mental approach,” he said. “It was in the [pregame] bullpen, it was working pitch-to-pitch. I faced a couple hitters down there. I went out for the first inning and made good pitch after good pitch and [Contreras] was able to keep me locked in like that.” 

It was a strong bounce back from his last performance, when Hendricks got pulled after 5 innings and 7 runs in Arizona. Heading into the day with ERA north of 5, Hendricks' gem lowered it almost two runs. His fielding-independent numbers look considerably more promising, too; the disparity between his pre-game ERA (5.33) and FIP (3.72) was one of the largest of any starting pitcher this season. 

“I’ll appreciate it for sure at the end of the day,” he said. “The lessons I’ll take from this is the early contact I was able to get, and how I was able to stay in that mental approach the whole way through.” 

Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

When former Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins last week, one thought was Atlanta could pivot and try to acquire Kris Bryant to fill the void in their lineup.

That possibility looks less likely now, as the Braves announced Tuesday they’ve signed former Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal.

The Braves didn’t have a dire need for a third baseman — 22-year-old Austin Riley, a former top prospect, is waiting in the wings — so much as they needed a bat to replace Donaldson. Bryant would have checked both those boxes, but the path to acquiring him is more difficult.

Bryant has been fixated in trade rumors this winter, but any extensive negotiations won’t occur until his service time grievance case is resolved. NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan reported last week Bryant trade rumors this winter have been “greatly exaggerated” because the lingering grievance.

The Braves have been named a potential Bryant suitor as they hold the top prospects the Cubs would seek in return for Bryant. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman threw cold water on that notion recently.

There’s also the possibility the Cubs don’t move at all Bryant this offseason.

"No, we're not in a position where we *have* to do anything,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday at Cubs Convention. “I think you want to always avoid being put in a corner where you have to make a deal and your back's against the wall and you're gonna take any deal that's out there.

“We’re not at all in that position but looking at the longer time horizon of the next two years, I think you would be wise at some point to do something that looks out a little bit more for the long-term and a little bit less for the short-term, but that doesn't have to happen now. We're not in a position where we have to move anybody."

Ozuna joining the Braves means the Cardinals lost one of their most productive bats from the 2019 division championship club. Like the Cubs, St. Louis' offseason has been marked by low-key moves, outside of the Cardinals acquiring pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore from the Rays, a deal which sent Cardinals slugger Jose Martinez to Tampa Bay.

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Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

The Cubs continued their stockpiling of relievers on Tuesday, acquiring right-hander Travis Lakins from the Red Sox. The North Siders will send a player to be named later or cash considerations to Boston in return.

Lakins is a former sixth-round pick by the Red Sox who made his big-league debut last season. The 25-year-old sported a 3.86 ERA in 16 appearances, three of which he started the game as an "opener." He pitched 23 1/3 innings in the big leagues season, striking out 18 while walking 10. He holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons.

Lakins' fastball ranks in the 70th percentile for spin rate, averaging 93.7 mph with his four-seamer last season with Boston. 

The Cubs have acquired a plethora of low-key relievers this winter, including Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Jason Adam and now Lakins. The club lost stalwart Steve Cishek to the White Sox and haven't been connected to the reliable Brandon Kintzler this offseason.  Pedro Strop is also a free agent, and the Cubs are reportedly interested in a reunion.

As of now, the only locks for the 2020 bullpen are closer Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. Thus, the Cubs have been gathering as many relief options as possible with the hope some will emerge as viable relief candidates this season. At the least, they'll have plenty of depth in case any injuries occur or if any arms underperform.

"You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention Saturday. "It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"When you guys see a lot of these transactions of relievers, often times they're going to be coming off down years. For the most part, I bet you when we acquire a guy, you can look back and you can see a year in the not-too-distant past when they had a really good year.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle. Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy."

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