The Cubs wrap up their three-game series with the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage from the North Side starts at 7 p.m., and be sure to stick around following the final out for reaction and analysis on Cubs Postgame Live.
Starting pitching matchup: Jason Hammel (13-7, 3.21 ERA) vs. Ryan Vogelsong (3-3, 3.02 ERA)
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No, Kyle Hendricks didn’t plan to quietly nudge his way into the Cy Young Award conversation when he outlined his goals for 2016. But here he is, leading the majors with a 2.09 ERA while the Cubs watch their nominal fifth starter transform into a dominant pitcher who should be at or near the front of a playoff rotation.
“I had my sights set a little lower,” Hendricks admitted. “I’m just taking it in stride.”
Hendricks continued his systematic destruction of National League lineups on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates during a 3-0 victory as the Cubs continued their march toward a division title and what they expect will be a deep run into October.
The magic number to clinch the NL Central is 18 after Hendricks crafted seven scoreless innings against a dangerous Pittsburgh lineup, not allowing a Pirate to go past second base while working efficiently (99 pitches, 61 strikes) during a clean game that lasted only two hours and 36 minutes.
On the one-year anniversary of Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter/onesie press conference at Dodger Stadium, Hendricks didn’t allow a hit until Gregory Polanco’s soft single to center field leading off the fifth inning. Hendricks (13-7) has entered his own zone — where he’s confident enough to throw whatever he wants whenever he wants — the way Arrieta did during last year’s Cy Young campaign.
“It’s just a different method,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Jake was a little bit more power — obvious power — but (Kyle’s) got a power changeup. (And) Jake had this freaky movement (on his fastball) — and so does Kyle. It’s just maybe not as hard but still equally effective. Give him credit. Stop looking at the gun. This guy’s really good.”
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The radar readings don’t matter as much when Hendricks can pinpoint two- and four-seam fastballs while dropping curveballs that play off his changeup, neutralizing hitters to the point where entire opposing lineups become very-good-hitting pitchers (.205 average/.581 OPS).
When Hendricks is on, Miguel Montero describes his job as putting down fingers and catching the ball.
“It’s all about location,” Montero said. “Nowadays, everybody’s just trying to overpower everybody (else) and they forget about the secondary stuff.
“He knows he doesn’t throw as hard, but he locates his fastball. He locates his secondary stuff and he works the edges. He worked the corners, and that’s actually even harder to hit than 97 (mph) down the middle. Even if you know the fastball’s coming, or the changeup’s coming, (when he executes the) pitch, you can’t do much with it.”
The Cubs (84-47) gave Hendricks — a pitcher already working with an understated confidence and a belief in his scouting reports — an early lead when Anthony Rizzo slammed a Chad Kuhl fastball off the small video panel above the right-field wall for a two-run homer in the first inning.
Whether or not Rizzo can catch up to Kris Bryant in the MVP race, Hendricks has to be among the leading Cy Young candidates, given his metrics (0.98 WHIP), remarkable consistency (18 straight starts with three earned runs or less) and strong August push (4-0 with a 1.28 ERA in six starts).
Hendricks has done it at home (9-1 with a 1.21 ERA through 14 games at Wrigley Field) and helped preserve the bullpen (3-0 with a 0.79 ERA in three starts following an extra-inning game the day before).
“It’s amazing how he does it,” Rizzo said. “He’s not the guy who’s getting away with plus-plus stuff. He’s just executing his game plan. He knows how to attack hitters. He studies hitters. And he went to Dartmouth and has a really good education, so he out-tricks guys.”
But this is much more than just a hot streak or a run of good matchups. Hendricks now ranks fifth in career ERA (2.96) among all active pitchers with at least 70 starts, trailing only Jose Fernandez, Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner.
Not that Hendricks is wondering about whether or not he will start Game 1 in the playoffs or where he will finish in the Cy Young voting compared to big-money aces like Max Scherzer.
“You can’t look that far in the future in this game, because it will come up and bite you,” Hendricks said. “I’m definitely a different pitcher than a lot of those guys. But, again, getting noticed, that kind of stuff, I’m just out there trying to pitch my game.”
There were times Jake Arrieta felt like quitting baseball, wondering if this really was the best way to support his family as he bounced between the Baltimore Orioles and their Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Va.
It wasn’t just his dream anymore. Arrieta had to think about a wife (Brittany), a young son (Cooper) and a daughter (Palmer) on the way. He had a business background at Texas Christian University, an inquisitive, engaging personality and enough confidence and connections to launch his next act.
The year after being Baltimore’s Opening Day starter, Arrieta found himself back in Triple-A by late April 2013, the fourth season he spent time on that level.
“We were at a point where I had other things that I could segue into and establish a career elsewhere,” Arrieta said Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of his no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, where the Cubs popped champagne bottles and partied in their onesies, showing the full force of their personalities. “Not that I wanted that to happen, but I didn’t want to continue to go through the things we were going through and moving from place to place in the minor leagues at 25, 26 years old.
“Baseball is something that I’ve loved to do since I was a little kid, but it’s not everything. I had to reevaluate some things. I knew I could always pitch this way, but there were times where it seemed like maybe I wasn’t going to get to that point.
“It’s just part of life that we had to deal with.”
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That big-picture perspective should help Tommy La Stella once he returns to the Wrigley Field clubhouse — possibly as soon as this week when the rosters expand for September — and goes into damage-control mode.
Arrieta has remained in frequent contact with La Stella since the reserve infielder/left-handed pinch-hitter refused to report to Triple-A Iowa in late July, moved back to his home in New Jersey, told ESPN he would consider retirement if he couldn’t play for the big-league Cubs and finally ended his holdout in the middle of August.
“I really care about Tommy,” Arrieta said. “He’s ready to kind of explain to the team what he was going through, because there’s a lot of confusion, rightfully so. But I take the baseball aspect completely out of it and I look at it from just a human-being perspective. I can relate to him on a lot of different levels.
“I know that there were things that he was going through and dealing with (that) we may not agree with and understand.
“But we don’t have to. There are certain things that he’s needed to deal with — and he’s at the point now where he’s willing and able to convey the message to the guys in this clubhouse.
“He can help us win games, so he’s a guy that we definitely need in this clubhouse. He’s ready to address the team — (and) move past it and get back to being a part of the team.”
Arrieta’s late-blooming career is a testament to willpower and perseverance, taking advantage of that change-of-scenery trade to the Cubs in the middle of the 2013 season and evolving into the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.
Even during a season where he has at times struggled to command his fastball and felt out of rhythm, Arrieta is still 16-5 with a 2.84 ERA for the best team in baseball, yet another sign of how much he has grown as a person and as a pitcher.
Going AWOL wasn’t the answer then — and it wasn’t a smart play for La Stella now — but at least Arrieta recognizes those anxieties and insecurities. Maybe that sense of leadership will help smooth over any awkwardness inside a laissez-faire clubhouse known for its late arrival times, loud music and Party Room.
“On a long drive — or when the game’s over, just sitting there thinking about where I see myself in the near future — it wasn’t there,” Arrieta said. “I wasn’t going to just continue to pitch in the minor leagues for another five or six years. If I wasn’t good enough to get the job done, I would move on to somewhere (else) where I was.
“There’s a lot out there other than baseball. But, obviously, this is ultimately where I wanted to be. It was just a point in life where there was some uncertainty there. And you address it, you deal with it and you move past it.”