CHICAGO -- The baseball that Freddie Freeman launched in the first inning on Sunday night towered to the upper reaches of the right-field bleachers, bounced, and then found its way down to Sheffield Ave.
Unfortunately for Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs, that blast beyond Wrigley Field's perimeter was a sign of where the evening was heading. In a 13-4 rout at the hands of the Braves, Hendricks found himself on the wrong side of history.
“It just wasn't his night,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Couldn't find it.”
Hendricks surrendered four home runs in the first inning, becoming the first Cubs pitcher on record to yield that many in an opening frame. In fact, only nine pitchers in recorded MLB history have allowed four homers in the first inning.
Hendricks had not allowed more than three homers in any of his previous 177 career outings. Two was the most he had given up in a first inning, and just twice in his career. The Cubs had not allowed as many as four home runs in any inning since July 4, 2010, against Cincinnati.
“It was just, obviously, not very good overall from the start,” Hendricks said. “Not aggressive. Falling behind guys. And then just everything was flat.”
The Cubs skipped Hendricks' turn in the rotation on Tuesday, when he reported feeling ill ahead of a planned start in Milwaukee. That came after two of Chicago’s coaches -- bullpen coach Chris Young and first-base coach Craig Driver -- were away from the team following positive COVID-19 test results.
During the Cubs’ road trip, the team placed a handful of players (since activated) on MLB’s COVID-19 related injured list out of caution. None had positive test results, but Chicago’s decision-makers wanted to be extra careful to avoid having the situation develop into a larger issue.
With that in mind, Hendricks felt it was best to skip his start, even though he has pitched while under the weather in the past.
“That was a tough one. I was just sick, basically -- like a cold,” Hendricks said. “But having a couple positive tests and everything going on, I think we really made the right decision. I pitch like that once, twice a year. It just happens. But, with COVID and everything else going on, you've got to be ultra cautious and smart.”
The leader of Chicago's rotation showed improvement in recent days, but some rust was possible with 10 days between appearances. He did continue with daily throwing, and logged a mound session on Friday in preparation for Sunday’s outing against Atlanta, but his usual program was disrupted.
“Hopefully I get back on the routine now and get better,” Hendricks said.
One night after the Cubs' 13-run outburst, Atlanta capitalized on Hendricks' long layoff.
Freeman got the Braves rolling by belting an up-and-in fastball out to right field. Two batters later, Travis d'Arnaud pulled a changeup out to left for a two-run homer. Ehire Adrianza (solo) and Guillermo Heredia (two-run) pounded Hendricks pitches out before the end of his 35-pitch first.
“It could be rust,” Ross said. “It looked like he just wasn't executing. The ball looked up. His misses were more beltline than normal. It looked like a couple balls were running back to the middle, kind of flat. Not the bite that I think we're used to.”
That was more than enough early damage to diminish the impact of Anthony Rizzo’s two homers off Braves starter Bryse Wilson. And Heredia put the game even further out of reach in a six-run sixth inning, when he launched a grand slam off Cubs reliever Ryan Tepera.
Hendricks said he was battling some of the same delivery issues that popped up in his three-inning showing on Opening Day. The righty explained that he was becoming too “rotational” in his mechanics, leading to some problematic pitch movement.
“I've got to get back to work. A lot to work on,” he said.
Hendricks did settle down after the first, bouncing back with an 11-pitch second and giving the Cubs four innings in all to at least save the bullpen some work. By the time the smoke cleared on his outing, however, the righty was charged with seven runs on seven hits.
“It's just a tough one. That eats at him,” Rizzo said of Hendricks’ outing. “As professional as he is, he wants to go out there every time and execute what he's trying to do. And when he doesn't do that, I know it doesn't sit well.”