Like most who were there, Kyle Hendricks doesn’t remember a lot about his own performance in a major-league debut in 2014 that was overshadowed by his first baseman’s decision to throw down his glove and go after the entire Cincinnati Reds 25-man roster after several innings of chirping and inside pitching by the Reds.
That he remembers.
“I’ll always remember that,” Hendricks said. “Wild. I was like, ‘This is what goes on up here?’ “
Seven years and a month after Hendricks’ footnote of a debut, that headlining first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, is gone with the rest of the Cubs’ championship hitting core jettisoned over the past nine months — Rizzo gone in a July 29 trade to the Yankees, a day before the Cubs traded Javy Báez (Mets) and Kris Bryant (Giants) and months after Kyle Schwarber was non-tendered.
Along the way Hendricks’ career has come full circle with the Cubs — now the longest-tenured Cub and the one front-of-the-rotation pitcher the Cubs have on the roster as they embark on a rebuild that will depend almost entirely on how many reliable pitchers join him in the rotation and when.
That makes performances like Monday’s seven-inning start against the Rockies in the Cubs’ first home win since July 26 far less important than who becomes the Cubs’ next Kyle Hendricks.
More specifically, which of this year’s three rookie starters — Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele or Keegan Thompson — shows enough between now and the end of the season to suggest the kind of ascension that 2014 rookie made into what became a playoff rotation the following year?
(Spoiler alert: Whoever does it will be the first since Hendricks).
“None of them is the next me because they’ve got way better stuff,” said Hendricks — whose 7-2 record and 2.46 ERA in 13 starts as a rookie far outclasses this rookie class of starters so far.
Nonetheless, he refers to them as “the three-headed monster” and raves about not only their breaking stuff but their competitive natures.
Now they just have to do it.
So while Hendricks — who leads the majors in wins despite pitching for a team tail-spinning into September — pitched well enough Monday after a three-run first inning to help the Cubs introduce some of the newcomers to the fact they actually have a victory song and ‘W’ flags, follow the other guys to follow where the Cubs go next. And when.
Thompson, who pitched four innings in a loss to Kansas City on Saturday, has made two starts with mixed results. He’s given up two runs in 7 2/3 innings in those two starts.
Steele, the lefty in the group, makes his third start this season on Tuesday against the Rockies (0-2 with five runs allowed in nine innings and a 1.556 WHIP in the two others).
And Alzolay (4-13, 5.16, 21 starts) could be back from a hamstring injury in the next week or so.
It’s obviously not fair to pin the Hendricks comparison on any of them — even to suggest just one emerge as that kind of established, reliable, playoff-caliber starter.
But that’s where the Cubs are.
It’s 2014 again.
And whether they turn the 2015-like corner next year — or years from now — is going to depend disproportionately on somebody emerging from this rookie group as a factor.
It’s hard to justify spending big on free agent pitcher next winter otherwise. Or to come close to projecting a timeline for the next competitive window.
That’s why room has been made for all three in the rotation down the stretch. That’s why manager David Ross says, “We need to find out what we have here first, and see what’s in the mix.”
Hendricks knows that much; he lived it seven years ago.
“There definitely are a lot of comparisons,” he said. “The landscape of the team, where we were at — it does feel very similar in a lot of ways. It’s hard for me to compare the two because I’m I such a different place personally.”
That’s what makes him the linchpin now, the reason to believe there’s any credibility at all to the notion that the Cubs can put together a competitive pitching staff on a timeline measured closer to months than years.
It’s also what makes him a key as a role model — a part of the job he embraces at 31 — for the young pitchers whose near-term development might be the difference between whether he gets a shot at another World Series with the Cubs or not (or even the playoffs?).
He knows what’s riding on the right shoulders of Alzolay and Thompson and the left shoulder of Steele. Even if those guys don’t.
“Definitely,” Hendricks said. “I don’t think they realize it necessarily, because I wouldn’t have when I was in that position in ’14. Which is probably a good thing.
“There’s so many things to deal with up here, so many outside factors,” Hendricks added. “They all do a really good job of just focusing on the task and what they need to do. And they love pitching and love competing so much that it’s easy to get their focus on just going out and doing their job.”
If they don’t realize it yet, they soon might.
“That’s obviously upstairs and some people around the peripheral, they obviously know that that’s the case,” Hendricks said. “And we’ll see how they do and how that affects the timeline.
“But I think it’s just really cool to see them getting their opportunities and seeing the things they change start to start, or just the situations they find themselves in and learn from. It’s really cool.
“And it reminds me a lot of ’14 for myself.”
If they’re still able to say that by the end of next month — never mind the end of next year — maybe all of the ugly baseball the Cubs have foisted on their paying customers for the last two months will become as overshadowed and faded a memory as the six innings Hendricks pitched against the Reds on Rizzo’s angry day in Cincinnati.