Hendricks in tune for next stage after loud 1st

Righty on track to start G1 or G2 in Cubs' Wild Card Series

September 24th, 2020

Three years have passed since last started a postseason game for the Cubs. Opposing him in that National League Championship Series matchup with the Dodgers was none other than .

Flash forward to this season, and Hendricks and Darvish have formed a dynamic one-two combination atop the Cubs' rotation. And as Wednesday's 2-1 loss to the Pirates illustrated once again for Chicago, the club absolutely needs its rotation leaders to keep humming through October.

"The rapport that we have now, the friendship, it's great," Hendricks said. "Pushing each other. We know we want to be those two guys."

Hendricks has been steady for the Cubs dating back to his Opening Day shutout on July 24 against the Brewers. He worked into the eighth on Wednesday and now leads the Majors in innings (81 1/3). Darvish, simply put, has been dominant, and he is in the National League Cy Young Award discussion.

Together, Hendricks and Darvish have combined for a 2.57 ERA with 152 strikeouts and just 21 walks in 150 1/3 innings this season. For comparison, the rest of Chicago's rotation has put together a 4.69 ERA with 124 strikeouts and 54 walks in 155 1/3 innings.

During the Cubs' upcoming Wild Card Series, Chicago will hand the ball to Darvish and Hendricks for Game 1 and Game 2 (order and opponent to be determined). Darvish's last start looks to be on Friday against the White Sox, while Hendricks made his final regular-season start against the Pirates.

"I can't really believe that's the last start of the regular season," Hendricks said. "It feels like we're just getting started. Just a weird year overall, but my sights now have to go forward."

For the Cubs, their sights are set on wrapping up the franchise's first division title since 2017. Chicago dropped consecutive one-run games in Pittsburgh but still holds a 3 1/2-game lead atop the NL Central over the Cardinals and Reds with four games remaining.

The Cubs' rotation is not much of a concern right now -- the group has a 2.30 ERA over its past 15 games. The lineup continues to be the primary problem area and that held true on Wednesday night, when 's first-inning homer off Trevor Williams was the lone breakthrough.

"Things can turn around in the blink of an eye," said outfielder , who had two doubles in the loss. "We have to embrace the situation that we're still going to be in the playoffs. So we can't feel down or feel bad. I think the biggest thing is trying to have professional at-bats."

Ever the perfectionist and true to his character, Hendricks shouldered the blame for this defeat.

Two batters into his outing, Hendricks had allowed home runs to Adam Frazier and rookie Ke'Bryan Hayes. It was the second time in his career that Hendricks allowed back-to-back homers to start a game, and it was just the fifth time since 1900 that the Pirates accomplished the feat against anyone (per the Elias Sports Bureau).

"That can't happen," Hendricks said. "With Rizz getting us a 1-0 lead, you know? Even though we've been struggling, I've got to go out there, put up a zero and give us a chance to build on it, build on that lead. I've got to be better from the start."

From there, though, Pittsburgh never got to Hendricks again.

Over 7 2/3 innings, the right-hander struck out three, walked one and left the mound with a 2.88 ERA on the season. His 2.5 percent walk rate is the lowest mark among qualified NL pitchers, and he is one of 14 arms in baseball with at least 2.0 WAR (via Fangraphs).

"That's as expected," Cubs manager David Ross said. "This guy, his résumé speaks for itself. I think that's what kind of pitcher he knows he is, we know he is. I definitely know what he's capable of. Just nice to have that guy on your side."

Hendricks also notched his Major League-leading sixth outing this season consisting of at least seven innings and no more than two runs relinquished. And in five September starts, the righty has a 1.45 ERA in 37 1/3 frames.

"If you like baseball and you like pitching, he's a fun guy to watch," Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. "If you're facing him, you hope you get to him early because once he gets dialed in, he's really good."

With the NL Wild Card Series not starting until Sept. 30, there is a chance that Hendricks could pitch on Sunday in relief against the White Sox to stay sharp. If not, he will find ways to get extra work as he preps for the postseason.

Hendricks believes he and Darvish have a chance to help the Cubs do something special.

"Darvish and I talk about that a lot," Hendricks said. "We're really excited to just go in these playoffs and see what we can do."