They might not be All-Stars, but Cubs' role players get the job done

CHICAGO -- You know it’s been a good series for the Chicago Cubs when Jake Arrieta had the shortest outing among the healthy starters. After Jason Hammel went down with leg cramps on Monday, which required the bullpen to pitch seven innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cubs needed their rotation to eat up the final three games of the series.

Eat them up they did, with a complete game win by Jon Lester on Wednesday and an eight-inning performance by Kyle Hendricks on Thursday, when he beat the Dodgers 7-2. Hendricks just missed becoming the first pitcher since Greg Maddux in 2004 to pitch back-to-back complete games for the franchise.

“Kyle was unbelievably good,” manager Joe Maddon simply stated after the game.

That’s about the same thing Maddon said of Lester the night before and Arrieta on Tuesday. The irony is both Lester and Hendricks gave up runs -- three total -- while Arrieta went scoreless for seven, but the Cubs' offense was held in check that day. That was not the case Thursday, when four players went deep, including Javier Baez, who had a huge day at the plate and in the field.

“Feeling good,” Baez said. “Seeing the ball good. Making my adjustments and making good contact.”

The loss of Kyle Schwarber early in the season opened the door for Baez, who has knocked it down by playing nearly flawless defense at second and third base. When Maddon can sit one of the hottest hitters in the league, Ben Zobrist, and not miss a beat with Baez, it says a lot about the talent on the team.

“We have more than 10 people we can play every day,” Baez said.

That might be an exaggeration, but not by much. After All-Star voting came out Wednesday, the conversation centered around the Cubs' sending their starting infield to the midsummer classic. But Thursday saw role players such as Baez and Jorge Soler step to the forefront. Soler had two hits and scored two runs. For good measure, the stars also had some fun, as Kris Bryant hit the left-field scoreboard and Anthony Rizzo went out of the park to center. Maddon has talent to play everywhere he turns.

“Javy was the second star of the game,” Maddon said. “This is just the beginning for him. I like the fact [that] when he’s not playing, he’s ready to play.”

The atmosphere at Wrigley Field continues to be electric -- no place for a 19-year-old making his second career start. The Cubs pounded young Julio Urias of the Dodgers to the tune of six runs over five innings. He gave up three of the four home runs.

“It’s crazy in that dugout,” Hendricks said after all that scoring.

Perhaps like Soler and Baez, Hendricks doesn’t have the name recognition around the league that the Cubs' potential All-Stars possess, but he is opening some eyes. Looking stronger than he did a year ago, Hendricks gave up just three hits and a walk over eight innings five days after he threw his second career complete game.

“He gave up the homer [in the fifth inning] and got right back in there,” Maddon said. “It didn’t lead to anything else. He made quality pitches right after that. In the past, you may have seen that home run lead to something right behind it. He nipped it in the bud right there.”

Maddon wasn’t sure if Hendricks could have thrown as well in back-to-back games last year at this time, but as with the team in general, things have come together more quickly than anyone could have imagined. It’s starting to sound like a broken record, but at least the starting staff is playing the right tune over and over again: They are the MVPs of the team.

“For me, it’s always about the starting pitching. ... He knows he can do it now,” Maddon said of Hendricks' longer outings.

What's more, the Cubs know they can count on him. There is no easy night for the opposition at the plate. Just ask the Dodgers, who managed a measly 16 hits in the four-game series won by Chicago. That ties the fewest hits given up by the Cubs in a four-game set since 1934. The biggest question surrounding the late innings was if Hendricks would get a chance at consecutive complete games.

“I could have,” he said after throwing 101 pitches. “I felt strong.

"I’m fine with what happened. He [Maddon] has a really good feel for it. He knows when the ball is getting up and getting on the barrel.”

Other than a Trayce Thompson home run in the fifth inning, not much went in the air off Hendricks. He navigated the Dodgers lineup just as Lester had the night before, and like Lester, he kept them off-balance.

“A lot of guessing,” Maddon said of the opposing hitters. “What’s he going to do next?”

That question applies on a daily basis to the Cubs' next starter.