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Kyle Hendricks is approaching the final stage of his rehabilitation journey. He was at Wrigley Field Saturday throwing a bullpen session before heading back to Triple-A Iowa to make at least one more start.
He emerged from that session with an increased sense of confidence about where he is in the rehab process and in the timetable for his full-time return to Wrigley.
“It’s going to happen really quick,” he said.
The plan is for Hendricks to fly back to Des Moines after this weekend’s series against the Marlins and then make another start on Tuesday against the Toledo Mud Hens. He hopes to get up to around 75 pitches on Tuesday, Hendricks said, and then he and the team will assess from there. The Iowa Cubs are at home all week, so there is a good chance he will make another rehab start on Sunday for them.
After that, it could be time for Hendricks to rejoin the Cubs rotation for the first time since last July. A rotation that, going into Saturday, had the lowest ERA (3.20) in the National League. Their success has made it easier to go through his rehab a step at a time, Hendricks said.
“Every single guy, it’s just one guy to the next dominating, so that creates a little more patience for me,” Hendricks said. “I just want to be sharp and be right. Whenever my name is called, I want to get the ball and be able to dominate along with the rest of them.”
Getting fully healthy was the first stage of his rehab process, so being able to get on the mound in game action has been important for Hendricks to see that his shoulder is truly recovered from the capsular tear that required surgery last year.
“When I got into that first game, there was still a little bit of a governor on there, a little brake, so just getting through my first outing and my first game, bouncing back and still not feeling anything,” Hendricks said, “that really showed me that I was in the clear. To be in competition, to be full go, no holding back, and respond and bounce back from that, I feel like I’ve cleared all those hurdles.”
A long time away from the team can be as mentally taxing as it is physical, so getting back to Wrigley for a weekend was important for Hendricks for more reasons than just his bullpen session.
“Everybody was excited to see Kyle this weekend. I think he needed that,” Drew Smyly said. “He’s been locked in on rehab for so long, I think it’s good to take yourself out of that element and be around the guys for a weekend.”
Cubs manager David Ross said he felt an energy boost personally, just from seeing Hendricks around the ballpark again. He joked that he wasn’t going to let Hendricks leave, even for a rehab start. It likely helped Hendricks mentally too that he was in town for the debuts of Matt Mervis and Miguel Amaya, both of whom collected their first major league hits and runs batted in on Friday and Saturday, in a 4-1 win in the series opener against the Marlins and a come-from-behind 4-2 win on Saturday.
His shoulder appears to be in good shape, so the last step before returning to the mound for the Cubs is getting his mechanics right. Hendricks said he has struggled with consistency on that front – probably a product of rust brought on by a long layoff – and getting in-person feedback on his delivery was one of the reasons he came to Chicago to throw a bullpen session.
Even just a couple of days with Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and the rest of the staff have helped him make some important adjustments, Hendricks said. He had been getting feedback from them on video of his minor league rehab outings, but being able to pitch in front of Hottovy in person Saturday was important for Hendricks to start getting better results on the mound.
He has felt physically healthy after two outings with Triple-A Iowa, but the stat line hasn’t been pretty: a 20.77 ERA in 4.1 innings where he has averaged putting almost three runners on base per inning. The most important thing at this point is that he is physically fine, but if Hendricks is going to add to the success of the rotation, he has to sort out what is going on with his mechanics.
Some of what he has done, Hendricks said, has been to cut down on the amount of yoga he had been doing and to shift instead to trying to tighten up his body. The flexibility and looseness had started to work against him.
“Things were just getting so loose, and I was losing my arm behind me,” Hendricks said. “I was getting so stuck behind the rubber because my body was moving quick. I just didn’t have my foundational point of getting over the rubber and moving quick from there. My shoulder level, everything was kind of exaggerated, I was behind the ball, I was underneath it.”
Hendricks said the life on his pitches has felt good. They are coming out of his hand just fine, but wobbly mechanics are keeping them from going where he wants them to. His usual velocity is there too – he joked about touching 90 mph with his fastball – so provided that he gets his delivery sorted out, there is reason to expect Hendricks can come back and help make the Cubs pitching situation even better.
His return will force tough decisions about the rotation. The top three spots of Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, and Smyly have been sharp all season, and Jameson Taillon returned from a groin injury on May 4. The only pitcher in the rotation who could realistically be optioned to the minors is Hayden Wesneski, but he is showing signs of improvement of late. In his last two starts, Wesneski has allowed two earned runs, and he tossed a seven-inning quality start on April 17 against Oakland.
Figuring out how to get Hendricks into the rotation falls into the category of problems managers hope to have, and it is one that Ross will likely have on his hands soon. In the meantime, his teammates are ready to see him back.
“There’s always a spot for Kyle Hendricks. If he’s healthy and he’s right, he’s going to fit in just fine,” Smyly said. “Kyle’s been an absolute stud for the Cubs for a really, really long time, and I know he’s really close, and I know he’s chomping at the bit to get back and help this team.”
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