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If the Cubs are going to have any chance of getting themselves over what is now an eight-game losing streak, it’s going to start from the top — and more specifically, from the top of their rotation.
A year ago Tuesday, the Cubs were 38-28 and tied for first place in the National League Central. Since then, the Cubs are 56-101 and sit 15 games under .500 (23-38) in 2022 following a 12-5 loss to the Padres on Tuesday. Coinciding with the Cubs’ fall has been the play of Kyle Hendricks, who despite starting the last two Opening Days (his second and third in a row) has not looked the part of a front-line starter.
From the beginning of 2021 through his last start on June 1, Hendricks has struggled. He owned a 4.88 ERA in that span while batters hit .275 and had an .814 OPS against him. It wasn’t emblematic of the Hendricks who’d been a model of consistency for most of his career on the North Side.
“I think there’s just a little bit of him getting back to doing some of the things he does really well more consistently, and making sure, whether it’s throwing pitches in the right area or pitch selection or pitch movement or a pitch you haven’t used a lot, just a lot of different stuff like that,” manager David Ross said. “Hopefully we get back, but I know he’s been a little bit frustrated on wanting to be that guy that we know he is, and everything points to it’s not a decline in stuff, it’s just we’ve got to maybe look at things a little bit differently.”
Those struggles combined with some shoulder fatigue led to a reset of sorts for the past two weeks. With the Cubs having two off days last week following an 11-games-in-9-days stretch, Ross decided to give Hendricks some extra rest and skip his turn in the rotation.
“It benefited me a ton, health-wise,” Hendricks said. “I feel back to 100% normal. That was huge from Rossy, just to find that window there with a couple off days to just have me skip a start and really decrease my volume a lot.”
Hendricks returned to the mound on Tuesday and looked more like the starter the Cubs expect him to be in a five-plus-inning, one-run performance. It didn’t lead to a win as the bullpen squandered a five-run lead, but it was more of a Hendricks-esque outing than what he’d showed for most of the last two seasons.
Prior to the game, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy attributed much of Hendricks two-season-long issues to an inability to be as effective with his four-seamer and sinker as he had in years past.
“I think most of it has just been with fastball command,” Hottovy said. “When he doesn’t command it, when he doesn’t locate where he wants to be, that’s where the damage comes.”
Hendricks has talked all season about focusing on establishing his fastball down and away early, and though that wasn’t really the case on Tuesday, either, he was fairly consistent in throwing his sinker inside to righties and his four-seamer away to lefties. It isn’t likely that he had a sudden shift in his pitching philosophy, but locating those balls efficiently allowed him to find more success with his changeup. He went to that pitch on 31 times on the night and induced a 52.9% whiff rate (nine misses on 17 swings), his third-highest rate of the season and his highest since his third start of the year on April 18.
“After the first inning or two, I noticed I had good action on it and I saw the swings I was getting off it,” Hendricks said. “I was establishing my fastball a little bit at the beginning or enough to have (the changeup) work right off that.”
When Ross was asked pregame if he was concerned about Hendricks’ stretch of struggles since the start of 2021, one of the things he pointed to was Hendricks’ numbers against left-handed hitters.
In 43 starts over the last two seasons coming into Tuesday, lefties had a .908 OPS (was .671 through his first seven seasons combined), a .287 average (was .236) and struck out at a rate of just 16.6% (was 22.3%). He also owned a 5.22 ERA against lefties, a huge jump from the 2.87 ERA he had versus them through the end of 2020.
So how did he fare against left-handed hitters in just his second time on the mound this month? San Diego’s lefties went 2-for-10 on the night (both hits coming from Jake Cronenworth) and accounted for three of his six strikeouts on the night.
“He’s been really good against lefties in his career,” Ross said. “This year (and last year), struggling a little bit. I think there’s some things that we tried to identify in his downtime of getting back to what he is. I want him to continue to do that and let the other teams figure out what the difference is. I thought he got back to a lot of the ways that he’s had success this year.”
Ross said he was going to hold Hendrick’s to the 85-pitch range, so a 27-pitch first inning limited his length on a night. That, combined with a scorcher of an evening (94 degrees at first pitch), led to some fatigue setting in as his night went on, and when Cronenworth doubled to lead off the sixth, Ross took the ball from him to end his night.
It wasn’t Hendricks at his best, but it looked more like the kind of outing that earned him the nickname “The Professor” in the past, even though he knows he can’t hang his hat on just one night.
“Really got to establish that consistency start to start, so the team can know what to expect every time I take the ball,” Hendricks said. “It’s a huge pride aspect for me. This is a good one to start, but got to keep going. Got a lot more to go.”
Still, coming after a lay off that allowed him more time to focus on what’s made him effective in the past, it’s a bar the Cubs hope he’ll be able to reach more consistently as the season wears on.
“Kyle was fantastic. I couldn’t ask for more,” said Willson Contreras, who was Hendricks battery mate for the 106th time. “… When he struggles, he’s still battling. He still battles, and he showed tonight that maybe it was a cycle. You have a really good stretch, and you have a bad stretch. We’ll have to find a way how to shorten those bad stretches, and he did it tonight.”
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