It's official: Hendricks to start Opening Day

'Every arrow points to Kyle,' said Ross of Cubs leader, who tossed shutout in '20 opener

March 23rd, 2021

Cubs manager David Ross did not even let the reporter finish the question. Ross has been asked about the Opening Day starter assignment multiple times throughout this spring, and the answer has always been an obvious one. The manager recognized the familiar inquiry on Tuesday morning and interjected with his choice -- really, the only choice -- to finally make things official.

"," Ross said.

Hendricks is the unquestioned leader of the Cubs' rotation, even with former Chicago ace and 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta back in the fold for the North Siders for the upcoming campaign. The only thing that could stand in the way of Hendricks earning a second consecutive Opening Day nod would be unforeseen circumstances, and the right-hander has navigated his way through his Spring Training routine and schedule without incident.

So, come April 1, Hendricks will take his place on the Wrigley Field mound, taking on the Pirates to begin Chicago's season.

There have been plenty of Cubs pitchers over the past century-plus to take the ball on Opening Day in back-to-back years, with names like Fergie Jenkins, Jon Lester and Rick Sutcliffe highlighting that list. Prior to Hendricks, Lester started three openers in a row (and four in five years, dating back to 2015).

"Any time you're mentioned with those guys, that's a hell of a treat," Hendricks said Tuesday. "It really means a lot to me, yeah, to be in the same group as those guys and those names."

Last July, when the Cubs started the abbreviated 2020 campaign after the shortened Summer Camp build-up, Hendricks was named the Opening Day starter by Ross in the manager's first complicated season at the helm. All Hendricks did in that July 24 outing against the Brewers was spin a shutout, striking out nine, scattering three hits and issuing zero walks in his nine-inning masterpiece.

"It worked out pretty good last year," Ross quipped on Tuesday. "I don't know that I was expecting that."

Of course, that outing by Hendricks began a regular season unlike any other in MLB history. Not only was the schedule trimmed to 60 games after baseball's three-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but MLB teams played with no fans in attendance.

Hendricks said he was really looking forward to heading to the hill at Wrigley Field with an audience once again. There will again be fans on the rooftops, but the old ballpark will also begin this season with a limited-capacity crowd (20 percent).

"It's going to be awesome," Hendricks said. "To have the fans back in there, it's been such a big hit not having them. So, we really realize why we play the game, and to be able to have them and that energy they bring every single day, it's going to be so much fun."

Over a dozen starts in '20, Hendricks fashioned a 2.88 ERA with 64 strikeouts and only eight walks in 81 1/3 innings. The right-hander relies on precision and weak contact, and he has still dominated batters in the era of high velocity and eye-popping movement.

Entering his eighth season with the Cubs, Hendricks has been a source of consistency, posting a 3.12 ERA both in the regular season and postseason. He won an ERA title in 2016, started Game 7 of the World Series that fall and has since grown steadily into the clear leader of Chicago's pitching staff.

Naming Hendricks the Opening Day starter was always going to be Ross' choice.

"I feel like Kyle," Ross said, "his résumé, his leadership, his poise, all that goes into being the Opening Day starter, just the extra kind of pomp and circumstance that goes with Opening Day, and especially on this coming year as well, I mean, every arrow points to Kyle."

Arrieta started on Opening Day for the Cubs in 2016, when he was coming off his historic '15 performance. Hendricks cracked a smile Tuesday when asked if he would rib his rotation 'mate about having more Opening Day starts for the North Siders.

"I'm definitely not prepared to do that," Hendricks said with a laugh. "He was one of the guys that, really, I learned so much from my first few years here. He took me under his wing."

Now, Hendricks has turned into that leader for the Cubs.

"Kyle is about as rock solid of an individual that you're going to find anywhere -- not just in baseball," Arrieta said. "And he's been that way since we first met. He hasn't changed. He's the same guy. He works incredibly hard."

Speaking at the Cubs' complex earlier this spring, Arrieta noted that Hendricks arrived at camp having already built up to a 60-pitch bullpen session. On the day Arrieta arrived, he said he was in the clubhouse when he saw Hendricks -- after a throwing session -- grabbing batting gloves and a bat to go work on bunting.

"That's the kind of stuff that," Arrieta said, "it just gives me goosebumps to see from my teammates. This guy, this guy wants it. He really wants to be the best he can possibly be."

Hendricks said he benefited early in his career from watching the routines of veterans like Lester, Arrieta and John Lackey. Hendricks would sit next to Arrieta in the dugout during games, talking about approach and mindset and pitches.

Over the past few years, Hendricks has noticed younger players now coming to him for similar conversations. He welcomes and embraces his role as a veteran leader, voice and resource.

And that process will continue on Opening Day.

"I just try to be the same guy I've always been," he said. "I want the guys to be able to trust what they're going to get out of me."