SAN DIEGO — Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series.
That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall.
In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature (without the billboards and flair for social media).
Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing a three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory in front of 30,033. The Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics understands what he’s up against and knows what he’s doing.
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The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put any pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.
Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 and pushed his record to 12-7.
Hendricks hides his emotions on the mound and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts.
Hendricks made it through six innings — he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year — after beginning the day with a soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors on FanGraphs and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.
Add all this up and the Cubs will be putting Hendricks front and center in October.
Here are the preseason rankings of Illinois high school football teams in each class, according to an Associated Press panel of sportswriters.
|8 (tie)||Glenbard North||0-0||29||-|
Other receiving votes: Brother Rice (27), Naperville Neuqua Valley (17), Stevenson (8), Oak Park River Forest (5), Naperville Central (5), Glenbard East (2), Oswego (1)
|1||Chicago Mt. Carmel (7)||0-0||91||-|
|2||East St. Louis (2)||0-0||72||-|
|8||Wheaton Warrenville South||0-0||33||-|
|9||St. Charles North||0-0||27||-|
Other receiving votes: Benet (21), Geneva (13), Lake Zurich (12), Lincoln Way West (12), Wheaton North (11), Machesney Park Harlem (9), Niles North (9), Schaumburg (4), Whitney Young (3), Fenwick (2), Belleville West (1)
|2||Sacred Heart-Griffin (Spr) (2)||0-0||92||-|
|3 (tie)||Prairie Ridge||0-0||82||-|
Other receiving votes: Oak Lawn Richards (13), Hinsdale South (10), DeKalb (9), Kennedy (7), Danville (7), Riverside-Brookfield (5), Lakes Community (3), Normal West (3), Chatham Glenwood (3), Grayslake (3), Harvey Thornton (3), Lake Forest (2)
|2||Peoria Central (1)||0-0||107||-|
|4||Joliet Catholic (5)||0-0||83||-|
Other receiving votes: Woodstock Marian (23), Highland (18), Marian Catholic (Chicago Heights) (17), Eisenhower (15), Tinley Park (8), St. Francis (6), Dunlap (6), Richwoods (4), LaSalle-Peru (4), Jacksonville (3), Glenbard South (1), Peoria Notre Dame (1), Chicago (Solorio Academy) (1)
|2||Althoff Catholic (2)||0-0||118||-|
|4||Breese Mater Dei||0-0||68||-|
Other receiving votes: Rockford Lutheran (17), Columbia (15), Taylorville (9), Quincy Notre Dame (5), Murphysboro (3), Rock Island Alleman (1), Herrin (1), Bethalto Civic Memorial (1)
|1||Bishop McNamara (8)||0-0||124||-|
|2||Tolono Unity (3)||0-0||110||-|
|4||IC Catholic (2)||0-0||63||-|
Other receiving votes: St. Joseph-Ogden (31), Bloomington Central Catholic (20), Carlinville (15), Elmwood-Brimfield (15), Breese Central (10), Williamsville (9), Princeton (8), Winnebago (5), Aurora Christian (5), Mercer County (3), Mt. Carmel (3), Herscher (2), Dwight (1), Westville (1), Marshall (1)
|4||Deer Creek-Mackinaw (3)||0-0||73||-|
|5||Sterling Newman (1)||0-0||52||-|
Other receiving votes: Rockridge (15), Nashville (14), Bismarck-Henning (11), Hall (11), Eldorado (7), DuQuoin (6), El Paso-Gridley (4), Champaign St. Thomas More (4), Villa Grove (4), Clifton Central (3), Chester (3), Fulton (3), Hamilton West Hancock (3), Eastland-Pearl City (1), Lawrenceville (1)
|1||Stark County (3)||0-0||91||-|
|2||Decatur St. Teresa (2)||0-0||76||-|
|3||Ottawa Marquette (1)||0-0||65||-|
|9||Mt. Sterling (Brown County)||0-0||30||-|
Other receiving votes: LeRoy (26), Arcola (23), Bureau Valley (22), Stockton (16), Camp Point Central (13), Pawnee (11), Galena (6), Cerro Gordo (Cerro Gordo-Bement Coop) (5), Concord (Triopia) (4), Sidell (Jamaica)-Salt Fork (2), Hardin (Calhoun) (1)
SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.
Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.
There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.
“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”
Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.
“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”
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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.
The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.
Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.
But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.
“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”