Kyle Hendricks emerging as a star for Cubs

CHICAGO -- We've arrived at a time in Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks' season when even his teammates -- some very accomplished themselves -- can't believe what they're seeing out of the 26-year-old righty.

On a night when manager Joe Maddon desperately needed him to eat up innings, Hendricks ate them all in throwing his third complete game and second career shutout to beat the Miami Marlins 5-0 on Monday. His performance was a thing of beauty.

"I love the fact [that when] I watch him, you can't tell if he's throwing a complete game, no-hitter or he's given up 18 runs," newcomer Joe Nathan said after the win. "It looks so effortless. Everything is so similar."

Hendricks is all about looks. One nickname for him is "The Professor," partly because he went to Dartmouth and partly because of what he does on the mound. He looks and acts the part of a school teacher. You won't find him wearing camouflage, chewing tobacco (even if it were legal) or going hunting. He's as clean-cut as they come -- until he gets on the mound, that is. Then he slices and dices his opponents as he did Monday, when he gave up seven hits and three walks and got the final outs on a double-play grounder before embracing his teammates and manager.

"This is the best I've ever pitched," the low-key Hendricks said. "The most confident I've been, I think."

He has been as consistent as any pitcher on the Cubs. In fact, during the roughest of times for the team, just before the All-Star break, it was Hendricks who helped keep the Cubs' heads above water. The Cubs won each of his final four starts before the break at a time when they needed wins and the starting staff was struggling mightily.

"That's one guy you can hang your hat on this year, right?" catcher David Ross asked. "When you watch him pitch, his heart rate is the same. Bases loaded, it doesn't change."

On Monday, Maddon had a decision to make. Hendricks was approaching 120 pitches but was three outs from a complete game shutout. This is a manager who has been known to err on the side of pulling a starter before the damage can start to develop. But not this night. Maddon stayed in the dugout.

"I really believe there is different versions of 120 [pitches]," Maddon said. "He had the same stuff in the ninth inning as he had in the third or fourth inning. That's a different moment entirely. I thought he was fine."

Hendricks concurred, believing he made better pitches in his final few innings than he did early in the game. In throwing the shutout, he lowered his ERA to 2.22, third in the NL. His ERA at Wrigley is a minuscule 1.19. With the Cubs holding a comfortable division lead and the calendar reading August, the questions are going to come up: Should Hendricks get Game 1 or 2 in a playoff series if the Cubs hold home-field advantage in the first round?

"That's too far to imagine," Maddon said. "We have to get there first. ... He's knocked it out of the park here, literally."

OK, if we can't talk playoffs yet, what about Cy Young votes? There are only two pitchers, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner, with better ERAs in the NL, and Kershaw has been out with an injury.

"He's on his way," Maddon said. "Look at the numbers. Look at the numbers at home. They are absurd."

Is this the first time someone has brought the Cy Young award up to Hendricks?

"That was the first one," he said with a smile. "That's something that's just an accolade. We have a long way to go. Our sights are a lot more than individual honors."

Back to his teammates, who have seen this coming the past couple years. That's why it's interesting to get a newcomer's perspective. Nathan is a six-time All-Star with 377 career saves. He has seen and done a lot in the game, and immediately -- without prompting -- he referenced the one pitcher most observers associate with Hendricks.

"This is your modern Greg Maddux, if you will," Nathan said. "He keeps them guessing while making his 89/90 mph look like 98/99 out there. The hitters think they know what's coming, and he flips the script on them. I'm intrigued at how he pitches and how easy it looks."

We all are. Hendricks has become a must-watch and maybe even the Cubs' ace. That was unthinkable four months ago.

"He's a humble man," Maddon said. "He does his work. He's a great team player. He's just a joy to be around. ... And then he does this."