Hendricks' shaky command 'uncharacteristic'

April 2nd, 2021

CHICAGO -- admitted that he took a moment to soak up the atmosphere inside Wrigley Field as he prepared for his Opening Day start on Thursday afternoon. Baseball was back and fans were in the stands.

"Feeling that energy," Hendricks said, "you could tell how excited they were, how happy they were just to be there."

That is the aspect of this opener that the Cubs players will look back on and remember fondly, as the game itself swiftly took an unfortunate turn. In a 5-3 loss to the Pirates, Hendricks was off the mark from the first batter, foreshadowing a command-averse afternoon for Chicago's entire staff.

Hendricks opened his second consecutive Opening Day assignment with a five-pitch walk to Adam Frazier, who saw only fastballs. The first changeup -- Hendricks' signature offspeed offering -- he threw was sent rocketing into the left-field bleachers by rookie Ke'Bryan Hayes in the first.

When Hendricks issued a leadoff walk to Gregory Polanco in the second inning, red flags were up on a frigid afternoon at the Friendly Confines.

"There was a lot of kind of non-competitive pitches, which is not like him," Cubs manager David Ross said. "He's a guy that barely walks guys, and he walked the leadoff guy in the first two innings. So that's just uncharacteristic of him. I never feel like he had a good rhythm."

With an off-day on Friday, Ross pulled the plug on Hendricks' outing after only three innings. The veteran righty was charged with three runs on four hits and three walks, with four strikeouts.

Hendricks issued all of eight walks in 81 1/3 innings in 2020, finishing the campaign with a 2.5 percent walk rate.

Hendricks had not walked as many as three batters in a game since April 1, 2019. This marked the first time in his career that he walked at least one batter in three consecutive innings. Overall, the Cubs walked 11, representing only the seventh time dating back to 2015 that Chicago's staff reached double digits in a game.

"I really made it tough on the position players today," Hendricks said. "Just long innings, long counts, a lot of three-ball counts, a lot of walks. So they're just standing out there getting cold."

To that point, the Cubs scored two runs in the first three innings, but they went just 1-for-24 after Anthony Rizzo's first-inning double. Chicago's lineup struck out 13 times, including 11 from the fourth inning on. All three of the Cubs' runs came via sacrifice flies.

"It was just a battle all around -- set a bad tone,” Hendricks said.

It was a stark contrast to one year ago, when the Cubs opened on July 24 against the Brewers after the brief Summer Camp ramp-up. On that day, Hendricks spun a shutout, striking out nine with zero walks and only three hits allowed. That was the kind of tone that helped lead the Cubs to a division title -- the team’s goal again in 2021.

"I told him, 'You can't throw a complete-game shutout every Opening Day,'" Rizzo said.

The easy thing for Hendricks to do would have been to blame the cold wind and low temperatures (36 degrees at first pitch). And it would have been understandable, especially given that seven of the eight pitchers used by the Cubs walked at least one batter.

Instead of citing the climate, Hendricks pointed out that his mechanics went awry in a familiar way.

"From Pitch 1, I was kind of battling myself. It was a fight," Hendricks said. "Just not a good position at the top of my balance point right now. It's usually a small adjustment for me."

Hendricks said he tried to make the fix during warmup pitches before his innings, but the work did not translate to the game. The next step is to tackle the problem in the coming days with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and Chicago's pitching corps.

"I have to put in some work," Hendricks said, "and just find that spot, get through the baseball better. ... I guess the good news is we've got 161 more. But we've got to flip that around. We can't let that happen again."

The Cubs trust that their rotation leader -- one of the critical pieces to this season for the ballclub -- can make the needed fix.

"We're always confident in him," Rizzo said. "Every time Kyle takes the mound, we're expecting him and he's expecting himself to go deep."