CHICAGO -- The Cubs can't change anything about what the Brewers do in the final three games of the regular season, but they can take care of the Cardinals. Kyle Hendricks did just that on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.Kristopher Bryant smacked a solo home run and Anthony Rizzo drove
CHICAGO -- The Cubs can't change anything about what the Brewers do in the final three games of the regular season, but they can take care of the Cardinals. Kyle Hendricks did just that on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
Kristopher Bryant smacked a solo home run and Anthony Rizzo drove in two to reach 99 RBIs and back Hendricks, leading the Cubs to an 8-4 victory over the Cardinals. Their lead in the National League Central stayed at one game after the Brewers defeated the Tigers at night.
With a magic number of 2, the Cubs could clinch the NL Central on Saturday with another win over the Cardinals and a Brewers loss to the Tigers.
"It's felt like [the postseason] all year long, especially in this division," outfielder Jason Heyward said. "That's kind of a good thing -- we don't have to say, 'Now we flip a switch.' Maybe we'll get a chance to not make it easier but focus on that one team in the first series. We have a lot of work to do still, and this is the fun part of the year."
If the Cubs (94-66) and Brewers finish the regular season with the same record, they would play a tiebreaker game to determine the NL Central winner on Monday afternoon at Wrigley Field. The losing team would then host the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday night.
The Cardinals' postseason hopes are still alive, but barely, as they trail the Dodgers by two games in the NL Wild Card race with only two to play. The Cubs would prefer to avoid a tiebreaker game or a Wild Card Game and instead win the Central. If they do that, they'd open the NL Division Series on Thursday at Wrigley Field against the NL Wild Card Game winner.
Bryant wasn't concerned about the magic number. He said the Cubs' goal is simple.
"Win two more games," Bryant said. "Our destiny is in our hands. If we do that, we'll be in a good spot. I think we'll come out ready to go."
Hendricks was ready, making his career-high 33rd start of the season. He went eight innings and set another personal best, reaching 199 innings.
"I didn't think I was going to get close [to 200 innings] anyway," Hendricks said. "Joe [Maddon] even told me he was aware of it, but in that situation, there's nothing you can do. I told Joe, 'Don't worry about it. We have to win this game.' It gives me something to shoot for next year."
They've come a long way from the beginning of Hendricks' career, when Maddon would lift the right-hander earlier than he would've liked in games.
"He's earned everything he's gotten," Maddon said of Hendricks. "He's a unique pitcher in today's game. He's definitely a throwback. To get drafted when he did throwing as hard as he did -- somebody saw something way back when."
What they saw was a pitcher who relied on location rather than velocity.
"He's pitching with his best stuff since I've known him," Maddon said. "He looks strong, the ball out of the hand is good. The four-seam fastball is 88 [mph], sometimes 89. He's a stronger version of Kyle, that's what I'm seeing."
Said Hendricks: "Usually, I get stronger as the year goes on. This year, I feel that even more so. My last three outings, I'm pitching to contact better. You're in that good mindset of one good pitch at a time. I wasn't doing a great job of that early in the year. As long as I can keep that mindset, it should be good."
"He was painting," Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said of Hendricks. "Keeping the changeup down. Keeping the ball down. Hitting the corners. He was tough to hit."
Hendricks has given up two or fewer earned runs in each of his past eight starts, six of which have resulted in a Cubs victory.
"That's definitely a growth moment," Maddon said of Hendricks reaching 33 starts. "He's definitely gotten stronger as a young man, maturing physically, and beyond that, the mental component -- 'I can do this, I've done this, I know what it feels like to be pitching this late in the year with this many innings, this many starts.'"
Bryant's homer was significant, too. He had missed two games after being hit by a pitch on the left wrist on Tuesday, but he launched a curve from Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright to center with one out in the fourth. This may have been Wainwright's final game with the Cards, and he would finish with a 15-10 career record against the Cubs.
How did it feel to connect?
"It felt good," Bryant said, smiling.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Taking advantage:Daniel Murphy singled after an eight-pitch at-bat against Wainwright to lead off the first, and Benjamin Zobrist walked on four pitches to set up Rizzo, who hit an RBI single. One out later, Heyward hit a grounder to second baseman Kolten Wong, but he bobbled the ball and Zobrist scored on the error. Wainwright escaped further damage by striking out both Bryant and Willson Contreras, but he needed 32 pitches to get through the first.
"The first inning, I came out a little sluggish," Wainwright said. "I can't explain that. I was fired up for the game. They needed more out of me in that first inning to set the tone, and I wish I could start that over and do it again. From that point on, I felt pretty darn good."
Welcome back: Wainwright had retired nine in a row before Bryant ended that streak with his 13th home run, connecting with one out in the fourth. According to Statcast™, the homer was measured at 448 feet, and it landed in center field on top of a batter's eye suite.
The big fly was Bryant's second since coming off the disabled list Sept. 1. He'd missed more than a month because of a sore left shoulder.
"Making an adjustment from my first at-bat after having a really bad at-bat, making the adjustment, I feel that's the most satisfying thing in the game," said Bryant, who struck out against Wainwright on three pitches in the first. "He made me look foolish the first time. I did something that at-bat and something clicked, and that's very satisfying."
Bryant's wrist survived the first game back.
"I'm very lucky," Bryant said. "That was probably one of the worst hit-by-pitches I've had in my whole life. It was scary. I don't know how we don't end up breaking bones in our hand any time we get hit in the hand, because it's so fragile. It got me in the meat of the hand. It feels good, especially hitting a home run."
• In his past eight starts (54 1/3 innings), Hendricks has a 1.66 ERA with 38 strikeouts, eight walks and just two home runs yielded.
• Hendricks kept David Bote busy. Bote recorded seven assists in the game, the most by a Cubs third baseman this season.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Harrison Bader was on first base with two outs in the fifth, but not for long. Wainwright was at the plate, but before Hendricks threw a pitch to him, he picked off Bader with a perfect throw to Rizzo at first. It was Hendricks' fourth pickoff of the season, second on the team to Jose Quintana (five).
"A lot of those come from the bench," Hendricks said of the pick-off signs. "I got a sign from Willson [Contreras]. Sometimes I'll do it on my own. That was a designed pick. We just waited a little bit and happened to get him. It just worked out."
HE SAID IT
"We know what we have. No matter how we've been playing, we know what's in that room. We always have confidence in that. Whether we're going through a bad stretch, whether we're playing great, we know this day is what we have to focus on. We do a good job of prioritizing what we have first. I know guys will come in with the same mindset tomorrow." -- Hendricks
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
With one out in the seventh and a runner at second, Bader hit a grounder to Bote, whose throw to Rizzo at first was high. Bader was called safe, but the Cubs challenged the ruling. After a review, the call stood.
Cole Hamels (4-2, 2.47 ERA) will make his 12th start for the Cubs in the second game of this three-game series. He has not faced the Cardinals since June 17, 2016, when he threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings in a win. In five starts at Wrigley Field so far, he's 1-1 with a 1.60 ERA, and Chicago is 4-1 in those games. St. Louis will counter with Miles Mikolas (17-4, 2.94 ERA). It's an early start, and first pitch will be at 12:05 p.m. CT from Wrigley Field.
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.