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ST. LOUIS — The last two seasons for Kyle Hendricks have not been the kind of seasons Cubs fans had come to expect from him. He knows that.
The 4.95 ERA and the .816 opponents’ OPS over 45 starts from the beginning of 2021 to his start against the Braves on Sunday say as much. Hendricks has shown flashes of his past self, but he has not been able to consistently bring out the front-line starter who’d finished as a National League Cy Young Award finalist in 2016 and held a 2.88 ERA and an 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2020.
The Cubs have taken different measures to try and help Hendricks get back to being the pitcher who earned the “Professor” moniker. He works with the coaching staff in between starts to identify areas for improvement. When he dealt with some shoulder fatigue earlier this month, the Cubs took advantage of multiple off days on their East Coast road trip to skip Hendricks’ turn in the rotation and give him extra rest.
Those measures have helped at times, but they haven’t always produced those vintage Hendricks performances.
That is until Friday rolled around, and Hendricks was matched up with one of those teams he always seems to excel against — the bitter division rival Cardinals.
Hendricks went into the game with a 12-3 record, a 2.82 ERA and over four strikeouts per walk against St. Louis, easily his best marks against any of the teams in the NL Central. Better yet, Hendricks’ 14th start of the season came at Busch Stadium, where he owned a 5-1 record and a 2.74 ERA in 10 career outings. If there’s one team Hendricks was going to be matched up with, the Cardinals were the one the Cubs probably had the most confidence in him facing.
“I think that’s just baseball, right?” manager David Ross said. “There’s some teams that have your number, and some that you feel like you’ve pitched pretty good against in-game, in-season, in-division. Maybe that has a lot to do with it, just facing the team a lot. You kind of know how you want to work them, how you have worked them. He knows where their holes are and is able to execute. He locks it in when the stage is big, and sometimes, your rivalry game is one of those stages.”
So how did Hendricks fare as he took the mound about 300 miles down I-55? Oh, just by piecing together 7 1/3 innings of shutout baseball, leading the Cubs to a 3-0 win over the Cardinals. He needed some help from Chris Martin’s escape act with runners in scoring position and one out in the eighth, but Hendricks set the tone throughout his night and will leave this series still without a loss in St. Louis since 2016.
“I’ll just keep it going, just try and make good pitches,” Hendricks said after being reminded of his success against the Redbirds. “I still got to just keep rolling with it and use what I did today and build on it. But yeah, I don’t know. I just got to keep getting lucky against them.”
“Luck” might not be the right word, considering how much success he’s had against this specific team throughout his career. After his night, Hendricks is 13-3 with a 2.69 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and 18 quality starts when matched up with the Cardinals. Much of that, however, came when was still pitching like the Hendricks of old. Though the success against St. Louis hasn’t tapered off (he still owns a 1.93 ERA against the Cardinals since the start of 2021), that hasn’t translated to other opponents often enough.
Perhaps the days of Hendricks being the Cubs’ no-doubt Opening Day starter are in the past. Perhaps Hendricks will find himself battling more often than not to find what he used to have every time he stepped on the mound, and it’ll just take him working harder and making more adjustments to get there. Still, a night like Friday was certainly a reminder of what Hendricks can be at his best, though he’s not necessarily taking it that way.
“It feels so long ago,” Hendricks said. “I’m really trying to focus on where I’m at right now. Just seeing the game for what it is, taking it and knowing where to go and making my pitches.”
Fine, he can just let his skipper do the reminiscing instead.
“Vintage Kyle,” said Ross. “That was an impressive outing.”
Hendricks credited Yan Gomes for calling a tremendous game behind the plate and having a good feel for the Cardinals’ aggressive approach early in the count.
“Very aggressive,” Hendricks said of St. Louis game plan. “I think it was really Yan tonight. It was what he was able to do. Recognized it from the start. Kind of just trusted him, really, all game. There were a couple of shakes where I was really committed to something maybe, and then a couple shakes where I shouldn’t have. I really just committed to him and his game plan, and he was really good feeling what they were doing tonight.”
But credit to Hendricks, too, for working with the Gomes and finding consistent command with the vast majority of his pitches. As illustrated by the image below, on the first pitch of the at-bats, Hendricks stuck to the edges of the zone.
That mirrored his overall command on the night, which featured more of the control that Hendricks has displayed over and over in the past and less pitches over the heart of the plate.
“That’s my game. That’s how I have to be,” he said. “I’m not overpowering, so changing speeds, staying on the edges. When I’m pulling pitches middle, I can get away with it early in the count sometimes, but definitely when I’m trying to go to the corners late and I miss and I’m pulling them, that’s when I’m getting damage and in trouble.
“I just got to keep my focus where it is. Still got a long way to go. I just got to make a lot of good pitches.”
It’s been a frustrating last two seasons for Hendricks, especially considering he hasn’t been able to give his team consistency every five days while the Cubs have gone on an extended rough patch over the last calendar year. His even-keeled demeanor doesn’t allow him to show it on the mound or in front of the media, but he has to be breaking some stuff behind closed doors, right?
“No, not breaking stuff, man,” Hendricks said with a laugh. “I get frustrated and just got to get to work. There’s nothing I can do to change it now. It’s just get to work and make the next one better. Obviously, it’s not where I want to be, so I just get frustrated with it. But no, not anger or anything like that. Just got to get better at making better pitches. That’s where my focus goes.”
Winning — and winning against the Cardinals — can certainly help with that.
“It’s a lot better winning ballgames, for sure,” Hendricks said.
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