As Kyle Hendricks took the mound against the Brewers at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon, he was coming off one of the worst outings of his career in a rout by the Braves five days earlier. The veteran right-hander made some unenviable history by becoming the first Cubs pitcher to surrender four home runs in the first inning.
The loss to Atlanta that day sunk the Cubs to 6-9, and it marked the 10th time in 11 games Chicago couldn't score more than four runs.
But that was then, and for Hendricks and the Cubs, Friday was now.
Hendricks gave up two runs on six hits over six strong innings and the Cubs’ lineup erupted for 11 extra-base hits in a 15-2 victory at the Friendly Confines to open a weekend series against Milwaukee. The win was Chicago’s fourth in a row amid a surge at the plate, and things looked drastically different for the club than they did just five days earlier.
“It’s kind of a tale as old as time,” said Anthony Rizzo, who launched his fourth home run of the season in the second inning. “When guys get hot, get rolling, the next thing you know, another guy gets rolling; next thing you know, you hit a bunch of homers and get a bunch of hits.”
The Cubs scored 15 or more runs for the second time in three days after their early-season offensive dormancy, following up on their 16-4 win over the Mets on Wednesday. Rizzo, Javier Báez, Jake Marisnick and Willson Contreras all homered, and Kris Bryant continued his hot streak at the plate by going 3-for-4 with a double. Rizzo’s homer was the 232nd of his Cubs career, moving him into seventh place on the franchise home run list.
Over their first 13 games of the season, the Cubs averaged 2.6 runs per game. In six games since then, they’ve averaged 9.2 runs per game. Friday’s outburst marked the first time since Aug. 14, 2009, that the Cubs scored 10 or more runs over the first two innings of a game.
The quality of contact at the plate Friday underscored just how well Cubs hitters are performing up and down the lineup. They put 17 balls in play that had an exit velocity of 102 mph or greater, the most by one team in a single game since Statcast began tracking in 2015.
“There’s gonna be these ebbs and flows to the season,” manager David Ross said. “To see how things started -- if we’d have had that stretch in the middle of the season, 6-9, it’s probably not as glaring as it was to start the season, as ugly as it was. I know you guys don’t get to see it, you only see the product on the field, but I’ve seen these guys working their butts off to be better than they started. They have high expectations for themselves.”
High expectations have certainly become customary for Hendricks on the mound, and with his uneven start to the 2021 campaign, Friday’s vintage performance was a welcome sight for the Cubs. He only needed 53 pitches to get through five scoreless frames. He ran into trouble in the sixth, when he gave up back-to-back home runs to Kolten Wong and Billy McKinney, but overall, his outing was another positive on a day full of them.
“There were definitely more positives to take out of this [start],” Hendricks said. “There’s still a lot of hard work to do -- still a lot of hard contact, fastballs that are up, but I at least made some better pitches overall. I just need to continue on that road.”
Another good sign for the Cubs was that Hendricks got to 92 pitches for the afternoon after missing a start earlier in the season because he was ill.
“I feel 100 percent healthy, 100 percent good and ready to go now,” Hendricks said. “ … I’m a little bit off mechanically, but my focus right now just has to be mental -- pick up the glove and attack the glove through it. If I do that, the mechanics will figure themselves out.”
The Cubs have been down this road before. Their veterans, namely the core group of Rizzo, Bryant and Báez in the lineup, have seen the valleys and know the peaks will come. That’s how they’re viewing their rollercoaster start to 2021, with a long season ahead.
“This game is hard,” Rizzo said. “You can’t appreciate the sunny days without a bunch of cloudy days, that’s what I always say.”