LAS VEGAS -- In the third inning of Game 7 of the World Series, Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks knew he was in a tough spot. The Indians had runners at first and second and had just tied the game, and Hendricks was behind Francisco Lindor, 3-0. All the pitcher had
LAS VEGAS -- In the third inning of Game 7 of the World Series, Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks knew he was in a tough spot. The Indians had runners at first and second and had just tied the game, and Hendricks was behind Francisco Lindor, 3-0. All the pitcher had to do was breathe.
"I stepped off for a second and I took a breath," Hendricks said. "I made myself aware of what was happening. I was like, 'This could be the complete momentum shift and it could be over.'
"I said, 'What do I need to do? I need a fastball down and away, I've got to get a strike,'" Hendricks said. "I made that pitch. I could notice my focus. I was so much more focused than I've ever been. I knew exactly what I needed to do and wanted to do in that situation."
He threw a good two-seam fastball and got Lindor to fly out to Benjamin Zobrist in left.
"As soon as he flew out, I kind of stood back, and you take that extra little breath," Hendricks said. "You're like, 'OK, that's one.' I had [Mike] Napoli coming up. A lot of times you get that second out, and you have that feeling, 'I'm done.' I told myself, 'Breathe, return to it, I'm right here, I'm present, now this is the biggest guy, and I have to get out of this inning.'"
He did. Hendricks got ahead two strikes on Napoli, who lined out to third baseman Kristopher Bryant to end the inning.
"If I wasn't aware of what was going on that way, things definitely could've sped up on me," Hendricks said. "Who knows what would've happened?"
The difference? Yoga.
Hendricks took his first class at the end of college at Dartmouth. He tried to hide in the back of the room.
"You felt weird in the setting and not knowing what to do," he said. "After a while, you realize that's outside forces you're worried about. That's a lot of what our problems are when we go out and pitch -- you're worried about outside things that don't matter. It doesn't matter what kind of setting or where you go or how weird or awkward. If you just worry about what you have to do, you can come in and do what you need to do."
He took a few more classes and liked the physical benefits and flexibility. Last year in Spring Training, Hendricks and his roommate, pitcher Dallas Beeler, went to a yoga class, and then it became part of their daily routine.
He started working with instructor Christine Schwan and noticed other benefits. Being in uncomfortable positions, being aware of your body, being able to breathe and be calm all translated to pitching.
"I just noticed that the more and more I did yoga last year, I would get into pressure situations and people would always talk about breathing," he said. "I was never aware of it. I thought I was calm out there and under control but breathing was never part of my conscious thought. Then I noticed about halfway through the year, I'd be in pressure situations and I would think about the breath for a second, and I would notice how much slower things got, and it was just slow in, slow out. It was very different than anything I'd felt."
Yoga has helped with his flexibility and balance, but the biggest contribution for Hendricks has been the mental aspect of it.
"I'd have games in the past, and it would be hard to focus -- I know it sounds kind of dumb," Hendricks said. "Yoga has really made things clearer and now that I do it every single day, I notice when I go in there in the morning, every day is a little different. I now know the alignment of my body and I can feel different parts of my body and where they're at different times."
So, did Hendricks lead the Majors in ERA last year because of yoga? He laughs.
"Why that happened, who knows," he said of his stellar 2.13 ERA. "[Yoga] was a huge factor, I'll tell you that. There can't be one reason to it, but it's one of the major factors behind it, 100 percent."
He has a five-day plan and does not do yoga on the day he pitches. Schwan did see Hendricks do some of their balance exercises during warmups before Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. That day, Hendricks held the Dodgers to two hits over 7 1/3 scoreless innings for the win.
Yoga is not just for pitchers. Schwan is working with the Rockies' Nolan Arenado and the Dodgers' Trayce Thompson. Miguel Montero and Jacob Arrieta joined Hendricks during the season, but don't expect to see Jonathan Lester or John Lackey on the mats any time soon.
"I'm not saying this is right for everyone," Hendricks said. "You see what Lackey has done for 15, 16 years, and that's the way he does it, and he's been really, really good that way. For me, I wasn't really, really good and I hadn't found my way. I found this, and it really translated to on the field, so obviously, I'm going to run with it."
On the day before Game 7, Hendricks and Schwan found a space behind the visitor's dugout at Progressive Field. It was freezing cold, but staying in the routine helped Hendricks.
"With pitching, you're doing all these physical acts but the ability to focus on one thing and move on to the next and move on to the next, that simplicity of focus, keeping that continuous throughout a game, it's hard to keep that consistent," Hendricks said. "It's been a huge tool for me mentally."
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast.