Encouraging signs for Kyle Hendricks as Cubs enter crucial stretch
It looked like it was going to be a tough night for Kyle Hendricks.
Three pitches into Friday night’s game in Pittsburgh, he had already given up 2 hits and the Pirates had runners at second and third with nobody out.
A couple of ground balls later and the Pirates had a 2-0 lead.
But as he has done so often throughout his career, Hendricks quickly made in-game adjustments and wound up turning in a solid outing. He ended up an out shy of a quality start (5.2 innings, 6 hits, 2 runs, 1 walk, 4 strikeouts).
The Cubs ultimately lost Friday’s game 2-1 but the big picture takeaway was certainly encouraging for Hendricks at a time when the team absolutely needs him to be at his best.
Beyond the effectiveness, Hendricks’ stuff is the best it has been in years.
On Friday night, he touched 90 mph twice. That’s something he had only done once in the last three seasons coming into the outing.
Number of times Kyle Hendricks has thrown a pitch 89.5 mph or more:— Andy Martínez (@amartinez_11) August 26, 2023
2021 – 16
2022 – 0
2023 (entering tonight) – 13
Tonight – 4
90 mph+ pitches:— Andy Martínez (@amartinez_11) August 26, 2023
2021 – 0
2022 – 0
2023 (entering tonight) – 1
Tonight – 2
After his outing on Sunday at Wrigley Field, Hendricks acknowledged it is a big deal that his velocity has ticked back up to 90 mph.
“It shows me I’m doing the right things and I’m where I need to be strength-wise,” he said. “You do get a little pumped. I think the guys get a little excited behind me when they see it.
“I’ll let them revel in it. I know I’m doing the right things and I know my body’s in the right place. That way I can just mentally focus on executing pitches.”
Hendricks missed the whole second half of last season with a capsular tear in his shoulder. It is an injury that often requires surgery but the 33-year-old was able to recover with rest and rehab.
The Cubs were cautious with Hendricks in spring, building the veteran back up slowly and carefully. He didn’t make his first start of the season until May 25 and the team utilized that time to get Hendricks back to the pitcher he was prior to 2021.
For the first 7 years of his career, Hendricks was an absolute rock in the Cubs rotation with a 3.12 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. But he faced some inconsistency the last couple of years with a 4.78 ERA and 1.33 WHIP before going down for good last summer with the shoulder injury.
Between the inconsistency on the mound and the injury, Hendricks entered 2023 as a major question mark. Would he be able to get his career back on track? Could he pitch well enough for the Cubs to exercise the $16 million team option for 2024?
Hendricks’ ERA sits at 3.80 after Friday’s outing and it certainly looks possible — if not likely — that the Cubs bring him back in their 2024 rotation.
“I think he’s constantly evolving, to be honest with you,” David Ross said Sunday. “The thing about a career, you come in with a lot of talent and success and you learn how to play or pitch at this level and he did a really nice job early on with his stuff and where he was at.
“Had a little bit of a setback there the last year and some change with pitching through some injuries. Worked his way back and now he’s found a new version of how he wants to go about things and building back up — the velocity’s there. He’s smart, knows how he wants to handle things.”
For Hendricks and the Cubs, not only is the velocity uptick an encouraging sign but the World Series hero feels like he’s close to locking it all in.
“It’s been a while [since I felt like I was at my best],” he said Sunday. “Maybe a point in ’20. You get starts in and out where you do feel that good and you lock it in. I had some starts earlier this year.
“But it’s putting those together, consistently putting that stretch together and staying in my mechanics so it’s real close. There’s a few pieces missing right now — my curveball, runners on base, a couple things. If I can bring all that together, my heater command and my changeup are the best they’ve been in a long time.”
That’s exactly what the Cubs need right now.
Marcus Stroman is on the IL and it looks unlikely that he will be able to return at all this season. Drew Smyly has struggled mightily in the rotation over the last couple of months and Jameson Taillon is still searching for consistency from start to start.
Justin Steele has already blown by his career high in innings and beyond that, the Cubs are relying on Javier Assad and other youngsters (Hayden Wesneski? Jordan Wicks?) to fill out the rest of the rotation.
If the Cubs are going to make the playoffs this season, they’ll need Hendricks at his best.
“He’s a big part of us, man,” Ross said. “He’s a really big part of our success around here. He’s just a staple whether he goes out and has a great outing or a bad outing. He’s so even-keeled with his work and his demeanor that he’s just really important to this team as a whole.”