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The Professor outsmarts Twins with 10 K's

@MLBastian
September 19, 2020

CHICAGO -- As the eighth inning loomed on Friday night, Cubs manager David Ross needed to know how Kyle Hendricks was feeling. Ross planned on sending pitching coach Tommy Hottovy to the other end of the dugout to gauge the situation. Hendricks quickly made it clear that the in-game chat

CHICAGO -- As the eighth inning loomed on Friday night, Cubs manager David Ross needed to know how Kyle Hendricks was feeling. Ross planned on sending pitching coach Tommy Hottovy to the other end of the dugout to gauge the situation.

Hendricks quickly made it clear that the in-game chat was not necessary.

"He turns around and gives me a thumbs up from the other end of the dugout," Ross said with a smile. "I have a ton of confidence in him."

Hendricks completed the eighth inning in nine pitches, positioning the Cubs for their 1-0 victory over the Twins at Wrigley Field. It was another outing defined by precision for The Professor, who sapped the power from Minnesota's potent lineup by switching up his typical approach.

Box score

With October approaching for the National League Central-leading Cubs, Hendricks displayed the importance of executing a game plan against a playoff-caliber foe. Going into the evening, the righty anticipated turning to his improved curveball more often than usual, and then he teamed with catcher Willson Contreras for a masterful, 10-strikeout performance.

"Just when you think you know what a guy like Hendricks is going to do," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said, "he breaks out a couple of other tricks."

Per Statcast, the Twins entered the night with a .341 slugging percentage against curveballs, compared to .384 for all of MLB combined. Looking strictly at right-handed curves, the slugging percentage for Minnesota dips to .309 (also below the MLB average of .380).

In the past, that information would have been good to know, but perhaps hard to utilize for Hendricks. Over the offseason -- and then through Spring Training, the season's down period and again in Summer Camp -- Hendricks has worked hard to refine his breaking ball to enhance the rest of his arsenal.

Now Hendricks has heightened confidence in dropping his changeup in the pitch pecking order when it makes sense. He did that on Friday, leaning on his sinker as his primary fastball and then working in the curve as the main secondary weapon.

"I'm just getting away from being that two-pitch guy," Hendricks said. "Throwing another wrinkle. It just opens up the rest of my game, like I've been saying. So when I see an opportunity to kind of throw a lot of them, I'm not shying away from it anymore. That's really big."

Against the Twins, Hendricks featured his curveball 28 percent of the time, throwing 29 within his 104 pitches. That was up from 15.2 percent on the season going into the game. The flip side of that was that he dropped his changeup usage to 18 percent (19 times) against Minnesota, compared to 30.6 percent on the year.

Early in the game, Hendricks said he noticed Minnesota's hitters were not biting on the curve, so he ventured more into the strike zone with the pitch as the night wore on. In two-strike counts, the right-hander turned to the breaking ball 11 times -- more than his sinker (10), changeup (nine) or four-seamer (twice).

"When you have a pitcher that can get ahead in the count real quick like Hendricks," Contreras said, "and then he can execute with two strikes, you have nowhere to go but to the bench. It's really good to be behind the plate with Kyle."

Hendricks scattered three hits in his eight frames opposite Twins lefty Rich Hill -- who limited the Cubs to a Contreras RBI single in the first inning over his seven frames -- and then Jeremy Jeffress handled the ninth to seal the Cubs' fifth win in a row.

For Hendricks, this marked the first time this season and fourth time in his career that he has amassed 10 or more strikeouts and no more than one walk. He is the only pitcher in the Majors this season with three outings of at least eight innings, and he’s the first Cubs arm this year to go at least seven innings in three straight starts.

For September, Hendricks is now 3-0 with a 1.21 ERA in four turns, in which he has 27 strikeouts against three walks in 29 2/3 innings. Over that stretch, the right-hander has lowered his season ERA to 2.93 from 4.09. Hendricks' 2.4 percent walk rate leads the NL.

Talk about hitting a stride at the right time.

"This is the goal, obviously," Hendricks said.

And against the Twins, Hendricks showed how he can plan, adjust and adapt based on the lineup, especially given how his curve has improved. That could be a crucial development for the Cubs this October.

"We're going to rely on Kyle. I don't think there's any secret about that," Ross said. "He's one of our horses, man. This guy is as good as it gets for me. It's just fun to be his manager."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.