CHICAGO -- With a performance worthy of his scientific method, the Professor pitched the Chicago Cubs into the World Series.
During his breakout 2016 season, Kyle Hendricks has been compared at various times to Clark Kent, Greg Maddux and the Norse god Odin. (Some of those were just me.) The "Professor" is the moniker his teammates have chosen, and given the way he dissected the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday, few would question the choice.
Hendricks’ picture-perfect 7⅓ innings were backed by the five runs his teammates put up against the Dodgers’ ace of aces, Clayton Kershaw; and that was more than enough, as the Cubs whitewashed Los Angeles 5-0 to clinch the National League Championship Series four games to two. Voila! The Cubs are headed to their first World Series since 1945.
“We’ve still got a little ways to go, though,” said Hendricks, quick to remind anyone with a question slanted toward historical context. “This has been our goal since Day 1. We’re going to enjoy this, but we know where we’re going to go. We know what it means to the fans in this city.”
The bare facts: Hendricks allowed a single to Andrew Toles to lead off the game. The next batter, Kyle Seager, rolled into a nifty 4-3 double play turned by Javier Baez. During the next inning, Josh Reddick reached on an error, but Hendricks picked him off.
That was it. Hendricks did not allow another baserunner until Reddick singled with one out in the eighth. Manager Joe Maddon pulled the plug at that point, thrusting his left arm toward the Cubs’ bullpen to summon Aroldis Chapman to finish things off, which Chapman did with little undue drama.
“I just tried to make my best pitch,” Hendricks said. “Every time. On to the next one.”
For the Dodgers, going from Hendricks to Chapman must have felt like going from a gondola to a speedboat. There’s Hendricks, with one of the lowest fastball velocities in the game, yet elegant in every respect, handing off the Chapman, who lights up the radar gun to extent few pitchers ever have. As thrilling as that is to witness, Hendricks’ changeup might be one of the five best pitches in the game right now. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Hendricks threw his changeup 26 times in Game 6, holding the Dodgers hitless in seven at-bats that ended with the pitch.
“At the end of the day,” Hendricks said, “if you make good pitches, you get hitters out. Obviously, there was a lot on the line. Just tried to simplify it the best I could.”
Everything is simple for a genius.
Lots of ink was spilled on the six times the Cubs played games with a chance at clinching an NLCS, the six times they failed, the five times they blew a lead and the three times they lost despite have an ace pitcher on the mound. But with Hendricks looking every bit the ace on Saturday, he became the first of his peers to break through the Cubbie Blue ceiling.
“That’s the best pitching performance I’ve seen,” Cubs MVP candidate Kris Bryant said. “Just throwing exactly where he wants to. Soft contact. He’s certainly the unsung hero of this team.”
The common thread between Rick Sutcliffe in 1984 and both Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in 2003 was that they were left on the mound after they had lost their stuff, and all three times, the games got away from the Cubs. That, of course, is the way things used to be: You ride with your best and hope it works out.
Nowadays, it doesn’t work like that. Even a No. 1 starter in the playoffs isn’t allowed to work out of trouble more than once or twice in an outing. The bullpens these days are too deep and too good. But once in a while, a guy like Hendricks comes along and explodes the modern paradigm: He was simply too good to remove. When the 26-year-old finally did falter, allowing that eighth-inning hit to Reddick, Maddon sprang out of the dugout as if to say, “Finally!” And the crowd, riding a wave of euphoria that might not crest until Thanksgiving, paused in its jubilation to boo a manager it collectively adores. Hendricks noticed.
“That was pretty cool,” Hendricks said. “But I know what I’ve got behind me in the bullpen. Not only Chappie, but we’ve got some electric arms down there. Whoever he was going to go to, the game was over.”
But this was not 1984 or 2003 or any other of the years of discontent in Wrigleyville. Maddon is a 21st-century manager who would sound like an alien to someone like Jim Frey or Dusty Baker. (Yeah, Dusty still manages. He probably still thinks Maddon sounds like an alien.) Hendricks did his job, and Chapman did his. The Sutcliffe-Prior-Wood scenarios never got a chance to get off the ground.
“If the opposing pitcher doesn't make mistakes, then it's tough to execute,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I thought, again, Kyle pitched a perfect game.”
Slow fastball? Yes, but he can throw harder if he needs to. A little, anyway. Mild-mannered disposition? Yes. A Dartmouth man? Of course. That’s in the media guide. They call him the Professor, and he’s smart enough to not pay any attention to history.
“What else can you say about that guy?” last season's NL Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta, said about the maybe-this-season's winner Hendricks. “He’s as well prepared and well poised as anybody in the game. You put those two things together, you get a guy like that. This guy can dominate and dissect a lineup.”
Next experiment: The World Series. Next test subject: The Cleveland Indians.
“It’s been an unbelievable year,” Hendricks said. “But we’re not done.”