CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs can rightfully be confident about their upcoming postseason run based on three simple words. Actually, they're names. Names that qualify as pitching royalty in the current era of baseball: Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Cole Hamels.
The trio can add to their distinguished résumés simply by pitching as they are right now. Righty Hendricks was the latest to showcase what could come beginning next week, as he threw eight innings of two-run ball in a huge 8-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday. The victory inched the Cubs closer to a third consecutive division title.
"Pitching with his best stuff since I've known him," manager Joe Maddon said after the game. "He's back to the weaker contact. He looks strong. Ball out of his hand is good. He's a stronger version of Kyle."
Hendricks won the ERA title in 2016, then beat Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series that year, advancing the Cubs to the World Series for the first time since 1945. He's back for more, as his past six starts have produced a 1.79 ERA to go along with a 0.92 WHIP. He looks playoff ready as he came one inning short of 200 for the season, still a career high. Maddon is right. Hendricks is stronger than ever.
"This year I feel that even more so, in a way," Hendricks said. "I'm just in that really good mindset of one pitch at a time."
Hendricks has good tutors as Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are even more accomplished. The former has three World Series championships under his belt and can grind through a game with the best of them. Lester is the likely Game 1 starter in any playoff series for the Cubs.
"Guys that have been there, done that," Maddon said of the trio. "You can see when they go out there, they're not nervous, they're eager. ... It doesn't get too fast. They're able to take their 'A' game out there and execute, and if things go awry ... [they] hold their own and get back on the horse."
No one pitches better without his "A" stuff than Lester. He proved it again on Wednesday when he righted the ship after showing little command in the early innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates. By the time his night was over, he had six shutout innings under his belt, leaving anyone who watched the game wondering, 'How did he do that?'
"It's unbelievable, the way they compete," outfielder Albert Almora Jr. said. "You want guys that will fight. Those guys will fight."
Perhaps no one has fought more than Hamels lately. Left for dead in Texas, he has been reborn with the Cubs, compiling a 2.47 ERA in 11 starts with his new team. His résumé includes a World Series MVP and four All-Star Game appearances.
"He's a gamer," Almora said. "It's a different animal when he's out there."
It was one thing to face the Cubs in the spring, when Lester was just waking up to the new year, Hendricks was finding his mechanics and Hamels was in Texas giving up home runs at an alarming rate. But when the leaves start to change colors, there won't be a team in the playoff hunt who wants to see those three names on the probable pitching list in a short series.
"They've earned the respect," Almora said.
The Cubs are far from a perfect team as they head to the postseason. They don't have a true closer, and the offense goes into hibernation more than any Cubs fan would like to see. But those three names can give hope when there seemingly is none. They can lift a team simply by their presence, as they all have in the past.
"Guys who have been there, done that -- you can feel it," Maddon said. "You can feel it in the dugout, you can feel it in the field."
The hope is the opposition can feel it, too. As the Cubs attempt to wrap up their division over the weekend, they can sleep well knowing no matter what happens, Lester, Hendricks and Hamels will be there for them next week. It's comforting for a team trying to gather momentum when they need it most.
"Selfishly, I want to play when they're going the way they are," Almora said with a smile. "That Hendricks, he's a silent assassin."
Just ask the Cardinals.