Beating one of the National League’s worst clubs will not automatically give you a full head of steam heading into October, but the way the Cubs’ starting pitcher handled the Brewers gave reasons for optimism.
The right-hander retired the first 14 batters he faced before giving up a run in the fifth inning on a two-out infield single and stolen base by Jean Segura and an RBI hit from Luis Sardinas. In the seventh, Hendricks gave up a double and an infield single, and that was it. His night was done after just 78 pitches.
Manager Joe Maddon insisted it wasn’t a calculated early hook, designed to let Hendricks move forward with confidence prior to a possible big inning by the Brewers. Maddon said he just wanted his rested bullpen to take it the rest of the way.
But on a night the Cubs fell 4-1 to the Brewers, Hendricks was talking about renewed confidence, even if he lamented the way things turned out for his team.
“That felt so much better, just making pitches from that standpoint,” Hendricks said. “It didn’t work out for us but overall, personally I just have to take good things from that one tonight and build on it.”
For Maddon, he will have to wade through these rotation waters carefully as the club heads toward a postseason berth. The Cubs’ starting staff moving forward is Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and everybody else, with Jason Hammel likely holding the advantage over Hendricks for the third starting spot.
With Dan Haren being skipped in the rotation this week thanks to Thursday’s off day, the pressure falls even more on Hammel and Hendricks to be effective and prove their postseason worth.
“We’ve seen how good they both can be,” Maddon said. “We’ve seen that from them and we know how good they are. I don’t think either one’s hurt and neither one is overextended in innings or number of pitches this year, so they should be in pretty good shape. Right now, it’s just about executing pitches in a game plan, which they both are capable of doing.”
Wednesday could be a blueprint for how Hendricks is used in the postsesaon. Assuming Arrieta and Lester can preserve the bullpen, Maddon would be ecstatic to get five or six solid innings out of Hendricks before having the opportunity to yank him at the first sign of trouble.
With the regular season winding to a close, there still is time for both Hammel and Hendricks to build the momentum they need and their manager would like to see.
“In spring training I was really pleased with our rotation,” Maddon said. “It is an outstanding rotation and these guys have shown that. A little bump in the road, but it’s crazy how that stuff happens and all of a sudden a guy finds something and takes off again.
“To me it’s paying attention to what they’re going right now and continue to have faith in them, believe in them and support them. We’ll see how it all plays out. There has been no decision made regarding it.”
That seems to suggest that Hendricks still has time to jump Hammel in the pecking order moving forward, not that he can afford to take the time to think about something like that.
“I think the way things have been going for me, I really just have to simplify and take things day to day,” Hendricks said. “I have to focus on coming in tomorrow, getting my throwing session and hopefully getting this same sensation and feeling of being in my lane and getting out front and getting the ball down.”
Hendricks’ next start could potentially come in Monday’s makeup game against the playoff-bound Kansas City Royals, an ideal litmus test if there ever was one.
“What you’re looking to see is a lot like they had been, which is strike throwers, getting in good counts, pitching more deeply in the game, more efficiently, more effectively,” Maddon said. “And it really comes down to fastball location for Hammer, and for Kyle just to pitch to contact and trust your defense. That’s what I see with these two guys.”
After 30 starts and nearly 170 innings into his season, Hendricks feels like he has found something that could be a boon to the team moving into October.
“It felt a lot better, more out front and behind the baseball,” Hendricks said. “I was staying in my lane and I wasn’t missing side to side so much. So it wasn’t a different sensation that I am used to feeling when I’m on, but it was one that I haven’t felt in a while, so it was exciting.”