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From high school underdog to surprising ERA leader -- the rise of Kyle Hendricks

Kyle Hendricks might not be the most well-known name on his team's pitching staff, but the Cubs starter's 2016 numbers speak for him. Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- It was 2008, and Kyle Hendricks had a decision to make. Actually, he had two decisions to make.

He had just been drafted in the 39th round by the Angels, a franchise whose ticket office his father, John, worked in for six years. Should Kyle start his pro career or attend college? That question turned out to be the easy one. When you throw in the low 80s, you need to have a backup plan.

"I told the Angels thanks, but it's going to be hard to pass up this opportunity," the Chicago Cubs' starting pitcher recalled recently. "I figured college was the best place for me to be."

That left one decision: Which college should Hendricks attend? The University of San Diego was pushing hard for him. He lived about 70 miles north of San Diego, attending and pitching for Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California.

Mission Viejo is situated in southern Orange County between San Diego and Los Angeles. The weather is essentially perfect for baseball year-round. Hendricks had the chance to precede another future Cub, Kris Bryant, at the University of San Diego.

But Dartmouth came calling from across the country, and Hendricks couldn’t say no. The Big Green liked him on the mound, and he liked Dartmouth on the field, as well as everywhere else.

"They had more interest in me," Hendricks said. "They had invested more in me. I wanted to play right away as a freshman. I wasn't assured of that at San Diego. It was just a feel thing. I fell in love with Dartmouth."

It didn't hurt that Hendricks had a GPA better than 4.0 and probably had more in common with the average Ivy League student than he did with anyone else.

"He was the same in the classroom as he was on the baseball field," Hendricks' high school head coach, Bob Zamora, said. "I had him in Spanish class, and he always had the answer, always raised his hand. He was smart, just like you see on the mound."

Fast-forward to 2016. Zamora made the short trek by train from Mission Viejo to San Diego last week to watch his former Spanish student pitch against the Padres. Zamora showed no surprise that Hendricks had made it to the big leagues, but no one could have predicted an MLB-leading 2.19 ERA as Hendricks takes the mound for his final start of August on Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unless something goes drastically wrong, he’ll keep his top ERA ranking going into the season's final month.

"He had the mental makeup, and the stuff followed to do it," Zamora said. "He still does. And the guy is an athlete."

Zamora recalled when Hendricks beat pro golfer Rory Sabbatini in a pro-am event, but the pitcher claims he "came really close." In his typical, understated style, Hendricks admitted he's a scratch golfer but doesn't "play that much" and certainly doesn't show a passion for golf when discussing it.

That isn't the story when it comes to pitching, an area in which he has flown under the radar his whole life.

"Even in high school, it was the same," Hendricks said. "Tyler Matzek got a lot of attention. Rightly so -- he was touching close to 100 mph."

Matzek was a year behind Hendricks at Capistrano Valley but was garnering attention early in his high school career, as opposed to Hendricks, who "came on late." The two friends might be the latest example of the radar gun not telling the whole story.

Matzek threw bullets, but Hendricks found his niche as a senior. He compiled a 1.25 ERA with 72 strikeouts and five walks over 72 innings.

Hendricks was drafted in the 39th round in 2008, then in the eighth round in 2011 by the Texas Rangers. Matzek was drafted 11th overall by the Colorado Rockies in 2009. He has spent most of this season in Class A after starting 24 games for the Rockies the previous two seasons and compiling an ERA over 4.00. Meanwhile, Hendricks is flourishing.

"He was basically just a 12-6 curveball pitcher in high school," Zamora said. "Now he has that changeup and sinker. He can cut the ball now and make it sink in. He was getting downward movement on the changeup, but now he can do more with it."

Although still the "small" guy in the Cubs rotation -- standing at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds -- Hendricks credits his getting stronger as one key to his breakthrough season. It wasn't reported last year, but he wasn't completely healthy -- and a lot of that was due to his not being strong enough to withstand the rigors of Major League Baseball.

"What I see now is a better fastball too," Zamora said.

One sequence Wednesday at Petco Park surprised Hendricks' high school coach. With the tying run on third base and two outs, Hendricks had a full count on Ryan Schimpf. With two bases open, it seemed like the right time for a changeup or sinker. Instead, Hendricks threw a 90 mph fastball right by Schimpf, who froze, seemingly astonished that he got that pitch. That isn't a sequence we would've seen last season.

"That’s Kyle," Zamora said. "He'll keep learning and adjusting and wanting more."

Zamora had less effusive things to say about Hendricks' high school career at the plate. The coach's hitter rating system had Hendricks at minus-28 points his senior season, the worst on the team. The two decided to work on one aspect of Hendricks' hitting -- bunting -- and brought in a guest instructor, thanks to Hendricks' dad's association with the Angels.

"We had Rod Carew come in and show him how to bunt," Zamora said. "He's a good bunter now."

Hendricks' offensive numbers aside, his tendency to outthink hitters and his mid-80s radar gun readings keep inspiring comparisons to Cubs great Greg Maddux -- something Hendricks heard even more when he first came up, before he started to establish his own identity. At that time, people weren't quite sure what to make of him.

"Same gig," Hendricks says of flying under the radar. "Not much has changed since then [high school]."

If Hendricks wins the ERA title and subsequently garners Cy Young votes, his lack of notoriety is bound to change.

Fans will tell you he's easy to root for because he isn't that different from them -- other than his being a really good athlete. He doesn't throw hard or look the part of a baseball star. He looks more like a school teacher or a "professor," one of his nicknames. Plus, he was no sure thing. He had work his way up the ladder.

"At Dartmouth, we didn't like the pitching mound we had, even though we had a new field," Hendricks said. "It was kind of flat, so a few of us basically built the mound. We went out there with 20 buckets of [dirt] to make the mound."

Now Hendricks has people who tend to the mound for him, as well as a first-place team playing behind him. Asked if his life would be the same if he had stayed near home and gone to San Diego, Hendricks wasn't sure.

"What if I go to San Diego, and I don't play those first two years?" he asked. "Does that hinder my development? I feel like I'm a rhythm guy and need to be pitching. I think it would have been a different path. I can't see it working out any better."

Neither can the Cubs, who hit a home run when they traded Ryan Dempster for Hendricks back in 2012. The front office has a young, cheap pitcher who won't go to arbitration for the first time until after next season.

Hendricks is just fine with that. He's just happy to have his own car now. He didn't when he went to high school, a place he passed last week on his way from Petco Park to Dodger Stadium. Times have indeed changed for the top pitcher -- according to ERA -- in the game.

"I used my parents' car," Hendricks said with a smile. "My dad would walk to work, and I got the car. I bought my first car when I signed with Texas."