WASHINGTON -- Kyle Hendricks is becoming an October/November hero for the Chicago Cubs. The right-hander shut down the high-powered Washington Nationals for seven innings in the first Game 1 start of his postseason career, leading the Cubs to a 3-0 win Friday and 1-0 series lead.
"That was nothing but excellent today," starting catcher Willson Contreras said after the game. "[Hendricks] didn't miss a spot. He didn't miss a pitch. We did everything we wanted to do today."
Hendricks had to be on his game because Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg was even better -- at least through the first five innings. A sixth-inning error by Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon opened the door for the Cubs to score two runs on their first two hits of the night. Strasburg struck out 10 before leaving -- but Hendricks would outshine the NL Pitcher of the Month for September. It wasn't Hendricks' coming-out party -- that came last fall -- but it was yet another confidence-building moment in a career that has taken off.
"Joe Maddon has always been there for me," Hendricks said. "They have instilled a lot of confidence in me ever since I came here. Even when I first came up, I had a bad year in 2015 and they stuck with me. So it's been that way for a long time. But to get this nod for Game 1, just to try to set the tone for the team is huge. I just wanted to go out there, like I said before, and just do my part to give my team a chance to win."
Hendricks did more than that. He was the entertainment for both Cubs fans everywhere and those people inside his own dugout. Watching Hendricks work magic with a baseball from the stands or on television is one thing, but when his teammates -- especially his fellow starting pitchers -- can't take their eyes off him, you know something special is happening.
"I just like his demeanor," Game 2 starter Jon Lester said. "He's so smart and figures stuff out. I just like how he composes himself and goes about his business. That was fun to watch."
That sentiment would be repeated over and over again, by those who have seen Hendricks only a handful of times, such as Game 3 starter Jose Quintana, to veterans such as mentor John Lackey. Lackey isn't exactly a man of many words, but when it came to Hendricks, the three-time World Series champion was nearly verbose.
"When you see them late on his fastball, you know they're looking for something else and he's got them in between," Lackey said with a smile. "He's prepared. He has a plan, and he can execute. That was fun to watch. Happy for him."
Said Quintana: "He was amazing tonight. His focus is unbelievable. No matter what happens around him, he's the same."
Hendricks, the 2016 MLB ERA leader, gave up only two hits and three walks. In the seventh, his final inning, he was able to pitch around an error by Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant. Hendricks was masterful, working both sides of the plate with some of the best movement he has had on his pitches all season.
"I asked him to teach me how to do it," Contreras joked. "He was so smooth today."
Said Hendricks: "When I start hitting spots [with his fastball], that's when it really starts to take off for me, and my changeup can work off that. I didn't throw many curveballs tonight, so really was relying on the fastball [and] changeup."
Every time Hendricks needed to make a pitch, he did. The performance was reminiscent of his outing in Game 6 of last year's National League Championship Series against Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers. The Cubs won that game, and later won Game 7 of the World Series -- which Hendricks also started. His fellow pitchers weren't the only ones impressed.
"He mixed it up," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "He threw changeups in fastball counts, threw high fastballs. He used all quadrants tonight. You know, he can pitch."
Before this series began, Lester -- a three-time World Series champion and veteran of several Game 1 starts -- declared this Game 1 a "passing of the torch" to Hendricks, even declaring that Hendricks' next goal is to be an Opening Day starter. It can't be far in the future.
Hendricks has tackled and won a Game 1, a Game 7 and everything in between, while lowering his career postseason ERA to a nifty 1.98 after Friday night's outing.
"He's a tone-setter for us," Lester said. "He set the tone tonight."
Mr. Postseason indeed.