Kyle Hendricks succeeded in the spotlight Oct. 22, taking his methodical, measured mentality into a nervy Game 6 clincher against Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. The result was 7 1/3 innings of two-hit shutout ball in which the 26-year-old Dartmouth alum faced the minimum to beat a guy many consider the best pitcher in baseball, and it sent the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945.
The playoff stage clearly hasn’t been too big for Hendricks, who led baseball in ERA (2.13) and soft contact rate (25.1 percent) in the regular season. He’s carried that success into October, allowing only three runs over 16 1/3 innings in the 2016 postseason. The way he’s gone about pitching those games and processing the magnitude of them hasn’t been any different than how he worked from April through September.
“I've never seen him rush through anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m sure he takes time brushing his teeth. I would imagine his cup of coffee takes two hours to drink.”
Hendricks, who was standing about 20 feet away from Maddon when his manager grinned through those comments Thursday, laughed when he got his turn at the podium: “I don't drink coffee, which probably doesn't come as a shock.”
But that deliberate approach Maddon was alluding to with his coffee comment has helped Hendricks maintain his effectiveness as the playoff pressure has mounted over the last few weeks.
“It took me a long time to fall into this mindset,” Hendricks said. “You can find yourself falling out of it and falling back into it. A lot of it has to do with confidence, I think. At the end of the day, if you are in that mindset where you're having simple thoughts, really you're on the mound, you know you can clearly recall your game plan, what you're trying to do to this hitter, and then you can simplify your thought and commit to just one pitch. When you have those kind of thoughts going through your head, you feel pretty confident, and you know you're going to do pretty well.”
Hendricks’ changeup has been an outstanding put-away pitch in the postseason, with the right-hander mixing it in well with his four-seam fastball and two-seam sinker. Opposing batters are swinging and missing at 21.7 percent of Hendricks’ changeups, according to TexasLeaguers.com, in his three playoff starts (among Cubs starters in the playoffs, that’s the second-highest whiff rate on any pitch only to John Lackey cutter, which has a 23.7 percent swing-and-miss rate).
Hendricks, too, has looked extremely comfortable in his starts at Wrigley Field — like that Game 6 outing against the Dodgers — posting a 1.32 ERA while limiting opposing hitters to a .589 OPS at home in the regular season (those numbers were a 2.95 ERA and .643 opponent OPS on the road).
So the stage is set for Hendricks to make, and succeed in, what will either be his final or second-to-last start of the 2016 season. Friday will mark Hendricks’ first career World Series start, but he hasn’t shown any reason to think the moment will be too big for him.
“I'm just going to take advantage of it,” Hendricks said. “I mean, how often do you get these opportunities? You dream of it as a kid. This is what you work all year long for.”
If you don’t think this World Series has it all then you haven’t heard about Cleveland Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin and his father.
As if a matchup between the teams with the longest championship droughts in Major League Baseball wasn’t compelling enough, Tomlin will start the first World Series game at Wrigley Field in 71 years on Friday night in front of his father, Jerry, who only two months ago was paralyzed from the chest down. Game 3 of the series between the Cubs and Indians gets underway at 7:08 p.m. CST.
Temporarily removed from the Indians rotation in August after he understandably struggled, Tomlin has rediscovered the form that made him one of his team’s most effective starters through July. On Friday, Tomlin will pitch with his father in attendance only nine days after he was released from a Texas rehabilitation center.
“Oh, it means a lot,” Tomlin said. “He hasn't been to a game in quite a while, and it wasn't looking like he was going to get to come to a game at all. So to have him here and just to be able to see him is the thing I'm most looking forward to.”
Tomlin said his family was set to arrive in Chicago late Thursday after traveling from his hometown of Whitehouse, Texas. He had to plans to see his parents for the first time since he went home in mid-August when Jerry Tomlin required surgery after suffering arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of blood vessels on his spinal cord, according to Cleveland.com.
The right-hander had already been struggling at the time his father fell ill and couldn’t shake it after he rejoined the team. Tomlin made six starts in August and had an 11.48 ERA in 26 2/3 innings.
Once September rolled around and rosters were expanded, the Indians gave Tomlin what pitching coach Mickey Callaway described as a “breather” designed to help the 32-year-old get centered once again. He didn’t make a start from Sept. 1-13 with only one inning pitched in relief on Sept. 5.
Baseball is a sport that is difficult enough without any distractions. The way the Indians saw it, Tomlin, who had a 3.43 ERA through his first 120 2/3 innings, needed to refocus and they had enough flexibility to offer him a break.
“He’s probably the best we have that would probably be able to separate something like that to the best of their ability,” Callaway said. “When it’s something that major, and it’s your dad, it’s going to take its toll and you can’t expect it not to. If you’re the person or the coach or anybody, you have to support him, be with him and let him know that you can and that’s what we did.
“We had the ability to give him a little bit of a breather and we took that avenue and it’s paying off.”
The biggest difference in Tomlin’s game since he returned to action has been his success with the four-seam fastball. From Opening Day through the end of July, batters hit just .184 against Tomlin’s heater.
The pitch is the primary reason Tomlin posted a 3.28 ERA over 29 starts from August 2015 through July. When he struggled in August, batters hit .590 against Tomlin’s fastball. Callaway said Tomlin began to turn more often to his cut-fastball, which hitters pounced upon, batting .850.
“The execution of my pitches wasn't where it needed to be,” Tomlin said. “I was leaving balls over the middle of the plate, and guys were taking advantage.”
They haven’t been of late. Since Tomlin returned to action on Sept. 14 his fastball has been effective again as opponents are hitting .219 against.
“He had a hiccup in August, but since then he's been pretty good,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Kind of top of the league. I mean, since last August … you take out this August, he's been one of the better pitchers in baseball.”
Once he returned, Tomlin made four starts during the Indians’ division-clinching run and went 2-1 with a 1.75 ERA in 25 2/3 innings. In two postseason starts, Tomlin is 2-0 with a 2.53 ERA in 10 2/3 innings.
Over that stretch, Tomlin has surrendered only one homer after he yielded 10 in August.
“Everybody has their ups and downs for different reasons whatever they may be,” Callaway said. “And he had his and now he’s bounced back really good from it.”
It’ll get even better for Tomlin this weekend.
According to Cleveland.com, Jerry was released from the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation on the pitcher’s birthday, which also coincided with the Indians winning the pennant. And on Friday, his parents will be in the stands when Tomlin pitches in the Fall Classic for the first time.
“The fact that we get to experience the World Series together is pretty neat,” Tomlin said.