Since the calendar flipped to May, Kyle Hendricks has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.
He's 6-0 with a 1.99 ERA and 0.82 WHIP over his last eight starts and during that span, only Max Scherzer, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Stephen Strasburg have racked up more WAR in the National League than the 29-year-old right-hander.
Now the Cubs will turn to Hendricks as something of a stopper. After dropping another game on the road Thursday night — their 8th loss in the last 10 contests away from Wrigley Field — the Cubs hope The Professor can keep his hot streak going and somehow find a way to keep Cody Bellinger in the ballpark.
Hendricks has put together solid stretches over the last few seasons, but this six-week span has been a little different.
As a contact-oriented pitcher, Hendricks always has to rely on his defense, but now — more than ever — he is leaning on his teammates.
He shut down the Cardinals his last time out — only 1 run allowed in 7 innings Sunday night at Wrigley Field — but admitted after that outing that he wasn't even mentally in the game until about the fourth inning. So instead he deferred to catcher Willson Contreras.
"What he was putting down — he could feel what the hitters were doing better than I could today," Hendricks said of Contreras. "So I started relying on him and he had more energy and he just mentally got me to be more aggressive and more into it."
Hendricks is one of the most cerebral pitchers in all of baseball, utilizing his superior intellect and scouting reports to attack hitters and shut down opponents.
But even he can't see everything, so he's seeking input from the likes of Contreras, shortstop Javy Baez and outfielder Jason Heyward.
When Hendricks twirled 8 shutout innings against the Marlins at Wrigley Field on May 8, Heyward approached him in the dugout during the course of the game and chatted about how Hendricks could steal some strikes against Miami's young lineup by taking advantage of their aggressiveness.
Heyward — who was playing center field that night — noticed the Marlins were ready to jump all over Hendricks' first offering each at-bat so instead of throwing the ball in the zone, he could get ahead in the count by getting them to chase. That's a different gameplan than what Hendricks typically employs, as he so often gets ahead of hitters with first-pitch strikes and entered that start against the Marlins coming off an uber-efficient 81-pitch shutout against the Cardinals where he got a lot of early outs.
In the middle of his solid start against the Rockies at home last week, Hendricks actually had a brief conference on the mound with Baez, who told the Cubs pitcher what he was seeing from the hitters as far as their swings and what pitch they might be expecting.
"He knows the game so well, so that happens a lot," Hendricks said at the time. "I'll look back to short and he'll kinda give me signals even when he's not coming out for the visit. In that situation, I know what he's seeing and he sees the game as well as anyone. So if they're late or early, what guys are sitting on, I definitely take into consideration what he tells us."
It's not that Hendricks had shunned teammates in the past or was closed off to any help from his catcher or the defenders behind him. And there are plenty of other reasons to point to for Hendricks' recent success — his velocity has steadily ticked up and he's inducing more swings-and-misses (particularly with his excellent changeup).
But the extra communication is an evolution that has helped lead to some legit results on the mound for him over the last month-and-a-half.
"I haven't done it as much in the past," Hendricks said after his last outing. "Maybe they haven't come to me as much, either. I think it's from both sides — we both just feel more comfortable. It's just that team mentality that we've all bought into and trying to win this ballgame.
"Everybody's locked in to another level and having Javy out there especially, he sees the game so well. I'll look back and get things off of him or he'll come up and tell me something if he sees something. I just trust him 100 percent now. He's always on the same page with Willson, too — he's so in tune to the game.
"[Heyward] does the same thing in the outfield. We're leaning on each other a little more than we used to."
But why now? What precipitated this change in Hendricks' in-game conversations with teammates?
"Just wanting to win — the competitive nature of it," he said. "Just taking advantage of any small thing you can to beat the opposition. That's where we're at this year and we're really trying to take it day by day. It's going out, competing with everything we got to win this game today and I think it gets everybody locked in a little bit more."