Hendricks gets opener nod for third straight year

April 2nd, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- Kyle Hendricks takes pride in setting the tone and establishing an identity for the Cubs' rotation. For the past two years, manager David Ross has trusted the pitcher to do just that as the Opening Day starter.

"It's a tremendous honor," Hendricks said. "For Rossy to make that decision and have the trust in me, and to give me the ball, it was amazing the last two years."

Make that three years in a row.

On Saturday morning, Ross named Hendricks the Cubs' Opening Day starter for Thursday's game against the rival Brewers at Wrigley Field. As the rotation's longest-tenured arm, and a pitcher who has taken the mound in critical moments in the franchise's recent history, there was hardly a doubt Hendricks would get the call.

"Reliability, consistency," Ross said. "The things that make up Major League players that have played this game for a long time, Kyle has a lot of those attributes. I know he's going to be prepared. I know he's going to be ready.

"And I know he's going to handle the moment as best as he possibly can, or as anybody could."

Look no further than 2020, when Hendricks first received the Opening Day honor from Ross in the manager's first season at the helm. The pandemic-impacted 60-game season began for the Cubs on July 24 that year, following a quick ramp-up process in Summer Camp. 
It was a one-of-a-kind circumstance, but Hendricks was up for the challenge. In fact, the right-hander pieced together a three-hit shutout victory over Milwaukee, ending with nine strikeouts and no walks in a classic Hendricks performance.

This spring, pitchers have also dealt with an abbreviated schedule in the wake of the 99-day lockout. Hendricks cracked a smile at the outset of camp when asked if another Opening Day complete game might be in the works for him. 
"I don't know if I can promise that," he replied with a laugh.

What Hendricks hopes to promise is a better tone-setting outing than last year, when his Opening Day start against the Pirates lasted just three innings. It was a bit of foreshadowing for a rocky 2021 campaign for Hendricks, who had a career-high 4.77 ERA in 181 innings (32 starts).

Really, though, Hendricks' season can be divided into three acts. The righty had a rough start (6.23 ERA in his first seven outings), followed by a tremendous 16-game run (11-0 with a 2.79 ERA in 100 innings). Down the stretch, the righty labored again, posting a 7.96 ERA in his last nine turns.

This spring, Hendricks has focused on getting back to establishing his fastball low and away, which was a problem throughout 2021. That played a role in his homer-to-flyball ratio climbing to a career-worst 15.6 percent last season. Hendricks allowed the most homers (31) of his career and saw his Fielding Independent Pitching soar to 4.89.

Ross waited until the day following Hendricks' last Cactus League start of the spring to announce him as the Opening Day starter. Even so, righty Marcus Stroman -- signed to a three-year, $71 million deal over the offseason -- was the only other strong candidate. 
Stroman was not having any of that talk. He declared it Hendricks' assignment early in the spring. 
"Hendricks is the man. Hendricks is the guy," Stroman said. "I truly believe Hendricks should [start] Opening Day, just because of his career, how unbelievable he's been in the playoffs. His resume speaks for itself.  
"He's the guy who should be handed the ball each and every Opening Day as long as he's here."

Over eight seasons with the Cubs, Hendricks has pieced together an 83-55 ledger to go with a 3.36 ERA. He won the MLB ERA title (2.13) in 2016 and took the hill in Game 7 of the World Series that fall. The righty has a 3.12 ERA in 12 postseason games.

Hendricks will become the first Cubs right-hander to start three consecutive Opening Day games since Carlos Zambrano had six straight nods from 2005-10.

Hendricks came up as a rookie in 2014 when the Cubs were on the cusp of one of its greatest runs in club history. He grew into a trustworthy arm during multiple trips to the playoffs and World Series glory. Now, as the team enters a transition phase, he is the unquestioned leader of the staff. 
"The first one meant a lot to me, just from the guys that came before me and what I learned from them," Hendricks said. "Now, moving forward, it's just kind of falling into that rhythm and that timing, and not thinking too much of it. Keep it simple for me. It's just like any other game."