Joc and Co. rock, Professor rolls vs. Cards

Hendricks' six solid innings the latest example of stability he brings to rotation

June 13th, 2021

CHICAGO -- put on a show around the bases on Saturday night. After his latest home run found the bleachers in left-center, the Cubs outfielder pointed to the fans, tugged at his jersey, stutter-stepped around third and pointed to the sky.

The fans packed into Wrigley Field roared with delight at a fourth-inning blast that had the Cubs well on their way to a 7-2 win over the rival Cardinals. And it was the always-stoic -- the rotation's stabilizing force -- who was the beneficiary.

"It's just more of the same of what our guys have been doing," Hendricks said of the offensive outpouring. "Really, all night, just did a really good job of responding."

While the Cubs' offense had the Friendly Confines shaking under the weight of the largest crowd of the season, Hendricks was steady throughout another quality start. The pair of solo home runs he allowed were blemishes, rather than blows.

As far as responding, Hendricks has done a great job of answering the call when the pitching staff has required one of his predictably productive performances. The rotation picture has been a complicated puzzle at times, but Hendricks has been the glue of late.

"Kyle's a huge part of our success," Cubs manager David Ross said. "The fact that he gives us real innings and goes deep into the games is a huge bonus for how we're winning baseball games this year, for sure."

Over six innings, Hendricks limited St. Louis to two runs, setting up the bullpen for a smooth finish behind a wealth of run support. Chicago struck for five runs in the second (helped by five walks vs. Cardinals starter John Gant and a homer by Ian Happ) and later received homers from Sergio Alcántara and Pederson.

The early cushion allowed Hendricks to weather a 25-pitch third inning and push through to the sixth. And Hendricks' showing came one day after the bullpen was asked to record 15 outs.

"We can't put that much pressure on this bullpen," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said on Friday. "They've been so good, but trying to get 12 outs a night can be really challenging."

That is where Hendricks has come into play as a stabilizer.

Ross has noted multiple times that he never goes into a game with a preconceived plan for how long a starter will pitch. That said, he factors in things like off-days or which relievers need a day to rest and recover. And, yes, he keeps it in mind when Hendricks is pitching the next day.

"If you look at the track record on days before his starts," Ross said, "it's pretty evident that I manage different before his starts."

This season, those pre-Hendricks days have fallen to Adbert Alzolay, Trevor Williams and Kohl Stewart. In those dozen games, the starter has averaged 4 1/3 innings. Ross is quick to turn to the bullpen, knowing he will likely get more innings out of Hendricks a day later.

Hendricks has responded over his past eight outings by going 7-1 with a 3.12 ERA over 52 innings (more than six innings per start). He has been even better recently, going 6-0 with a 2.93 ERA and an average of 6 2/3 innings in his last six turns.

"That's a huge part of my focus," Hendricks said of chewing up innings. "Today, I threw six. Ideally, you always want to get through at least seven. But if you get through six, the way our bullpen's been going this year, it's been lock-down there at the back end."

The question is whether the Cubs' current formula is sustainable.

Currently, Hendricks is in the rotation with Zach Davies and Jake Arrieta. Alzolay is on the 10-day injured list to let a blister on his pitching hand heal. Williams is on the 10-day IL with an uncertain timeline, given that he is recovering from an emergency appendectomy on May 30. Stewart was optioned to Triple-A on Saturday after a rough start one day earlier.

The Cubs are in the midst of a 12-day stretch with no days off, and there is no clarity over the rotation after this series. Righty Alec Mills will likely slide into the starting staff, but the fifth-starter spot is up in the air for the next road set against the Mets.

There have been 23 games this season in which a Cubs starter has logged fewer than five innings. That was the third-most in the National League going into Saturday. It is clear that the Cubs could benefit from pursuing rotation help at the Deadline.

"Our needs could change," Hoyer said. "I do expect -- I think I've said it on the record -- I think starting pitching right now is an obvious area. I think our guys have competed and battled, but innings are going to be so valuable."

That is what has made Hendricks so important.

"He's, I would say, as important as anybody on our team," Ross said. "I think he expects to have those types of performances, expects a lot of himself."