MESA, Ariz. — The education of Kyle Hendricks continued on Sunday afternoon, in front of a sellout crowd that set a new Cactus League record (14,770). Fans had already started tailgating by 8:45 a.m. on a grass field next to Cubs Park, and they let you know what they think of Ryan Braun.
The boos started when Braun’s face appeared on the video board during pregame introductions. The Milwaukee Brewers superstar got booed during both at-bats walking up to home plate before his name was even announced.
“Oh yeah, you could hear those boos,” Hendricks said. “The Brewer fans were trying to cheer over them, but you could hear the boos.”
The Cubs hung on to win, 10-8, with Hendricks trying to slow the game down and getting through three innings (two runs, three hits, two walks, four strikeouts). Braun served his suspension and sat out 65 games last season, but he remains a face of the Biogenesis scandal and baseball’s war on performance-enhancing drugs.
Hendricks — the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2013 — struck out Braun swinging to end the first inning. Braun responded in the third inning by doubling to left field on a 75-degree day framed by a blue sky and sunshine.
“He got me on the second at-bat,” Hendricks said. “But that wasn’t a bad pitch. He was way out front. His barrel stays through the zone pretty long. I could have thrown a different pitch to him there. (But) he’s a really good hitter, obviously, so he’s going to get his hits on good pitches, too.”
Hendricks completed his coursework at Dartmouth College this offseason, getting an economics degree with a minor in math. That was the exclamation point to a season where he went 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA in 27 starts at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. Baseball America graded him as having the best changeup and best control in the organization.
“He’s a pitcher,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He stays down in the zone. He hits both sides of the plate. He mixes his pitches well. That’s the same thing he’s going to have to do at the major-league level. Is it possible for him to do it? Sure, absolutely.”
Hendricks walked Juan Francisco and Lyle Overbay in the second inning, and both Brewers wound up scoring. Hendricks said he’s not surprised that he’s given up five walks through five Cactus League innings because he’s still trying to get in a groove with his mechanics.
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“I was happy that I was more in tune with the speed of the game this time out,” Hendricks said. “I felt a lot better calling my own pitches and knowing what I was trying to do with hitters. That’s all I was trying to focus on.”
The 24-year-old right-hander believes he can get big-league hitters out with his stuff.
“You’re definitely unsure when you first start and you go out there. You don’t know how good they are going to be,” Hendricks said. “I’m definitely a lot more confident now. I’ve been out there twice against big-league hitters, and I’m just gaining more confidence every inning, every pitch.”
It will be way more interesting to hear the Braun reactions from the bleachers when the Brewers visit Wrigley Field for a weekend series May 16 through 18. By then, it will probably be clear that the Cubs will be in sell mode.
Hendricks, who was part of the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal with the Texas Rangers, should start the season in Des Moines, where he will be one phone call away.
“It’s up to them,” Hendricks said. “Whatever they decide, I’ll be more than happy. I’m trying to get myself ready so that when, hopefully, an opportunity does arise, I’ll be able to take advantage of it.”