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The foreign conundrum that Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs face down the stretch

3 years agoTony Andracki

This is brand new territory for Kyle Hendricks.

It’s uncharted waters.

When the 31-year-old took the ball Wednesday night against the Minnesota Twins, it represented the first time in seven years that he pitched for a Cubs team that has been eliminated from playoff contention. Hendricks was last in this boat with the 2014 Cubs and back then, he was a rookie trying to prove he belongs in the big leagues.

The Cubs made the playoffs nearly every year since then and Hendricks has been a big part of that success — including taking the ball for Game 7 of the World Series in 2016 and Game 1 of the 2017 NLDS.

The only year the Cubs did not make the postseason in that span was 2019 and Hendricks’ final start of that season came on Sept. 24, when the team was not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

“It’s definitely been an adjustment,” Hendricks admitted. “You try and go out there with the same mindset every time. It’s just one pitch at a time, execute one pitch. Move on to the next one, execute that one.

“When everything’s going good, that’s where I’m at. But for me, it hasn’t been locked in lately. We’ve made a switch to go in with one or two goals I’m really trying to accomplish and go from there and make sure I do it and make myself better and set myself up for next year.”

Hendricks has always been known as a guy who puts the team over himself. He’s always been working toward something — getting to the majors, establishing himself as a big-leaguer, competing for a championship.

So what do you do when you take away all those goals? What do you do when the backdrop of every outing has suddenly changed?

It’s been a unique situation for Hendricks and one he has struggled to adapt to.

It’s not a lack of effort. It’s not as if he’s going out to the mound with any less desire to win or pitch well.

His frame of reference is different; his perspective is different. Because the team’s situation is different than anything else he has experienced since that 13-start audition during his rookie season.

“Every year he’s been here basically minus the end of 2014, he’s been pitching for something late in the season,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “I think it’s just a different motivation right now. There’s some things that he wants to focus on and make sure he checks some boxes before the end of the year.

“And a lot of that motivation that he’s had in the past was to make sure we’re pushing for the postseason. Pushing for the playoffs just isn’t in the cards this year, so trying to find new ways to motivate, new ways to refocus that energy I think is important.”

Essentially, this recent stretch is a reminder that Hendricks is human.

Prior to 2021, Hendricks had never posted an ERA above 4.00 in any season of his career. That mark hasn’t even reached 3.50 since 2015.

As of right now, Hendricks will pitch one more time this season and he’ll carry a 4.81 ERA and 1.35 WHIP into that start.

“He’s been so consistent that we have taken that for granted,” Hottovy said. “I don’t want to lose sight of what he’s been able to accomplish so far in his career. It also shows you the type of competitor he is. When it’s the postseason and you’re in a playoff push, he is as good as it gets in terms of being locked in. Right now, it’s just a different focus for him.”

When the Cubs were still in the hunt for the division earlier this season, Hendricks was locked in. He had a 13-start stretch from mid-May through the middle of July where he went at least 6 innings in each outing and sported a 10-0 record.

Then the team’s entire situation changed at the trade deadline. And oh by the way, the entire clubhouse changed. He’s seen so many of his teammates and friends leave the Cubs over the last year, including the trio of core players (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez) at this summer’s deadline.

There’s a natural letdown that can accompany such a drastic change in environment.

“For a guy like him that’s been metronomic with his performances, this is the first time in his career that he’s pitching in a situation where the team’s not in a pennant race,” Jed Hoyer said. “This last stretch hasn’t been his best. The body of work and his consistency is kind of off the charts.

“So when you evaluate this year, you have to kind of put the second part of it [in a separate category] because this is the first time he’s ever pitched in this situation. You really have to factor that in.”

The other potential issue at play here with Hendricks is workload.

He has thrown 176 innings this season after last year’s strange 60-game schedule where he narrowly topped 80 innings (81.1). That’s a pretty big jump but he and the Cubs also felt like he was prepared for it from a physical standpoint.

Hendricks continued to throw all throughout the shutdown last spring and was in a good enough spot where he tossed a complete game on Opening Day in late July.

He came into 2021 knowing he wasn’t going to hit the coveted 200-inning mark and the Cubs don’t see these hiccups as running into a wall.

“No concerns whatsoever on my end,” Hottovy said. “I think he checked off a lot of boxes — being able to hit some inning goals that he wanted to that are only going to help him build for next year, ending the season on a good note and feeling good going into the offseason.”

The main points the Cubs have tried to drive home with Hendricks recently has been to pitch to his strengths and keep his focus short-sighted vs. looking at the big picture.

“I think it’s about staying in the moment,” David Ross said. “Let’s focus on executing each individual pitch rather than getting outside of anything else. That’s probably the mindset he’s in — some kind of championship mentality or winning mentality.

“He can do so much and he’s gotten away from what he does best. And that’s what I think we’re focused on him getting back to doing what he does best.”

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