Hendricks' return, 5-inning gem 'so important' for Cubs' staff

May 12th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- was expected to go to Triple-A Iowa on Sunday and make another rehab start. On Saturday, he learned he’d instead be back with the big league team, facing the Pirates and going for a series win with the club in a “need-based” mode, as manager Craig Counsell put it.

There’s no place he’d rather be, and he showed as much in his best start of the season.

Hendricks returned from the injured list on Sunday to pitch five innings, allowing only one run and exiting with a lead en route to the Cubs' 5-4 series-clinching win in 10 innings against the Pirates at PNC Park.

After two straight days of watching Pirates starters turn the velocity up to 100 mph or more, Hendricks provided an old-school, execution-focused gem in which he topped out at 90.2 mph. But thanks to his ability to stay out of the heart of the plate, he was able to shake off his early-season woes and toss his best start of 2024.

“It’s just so important for us right now with the injuries to have him pitch like that,” Counsell said. “It was great to see. I’m happy for Kyle -- most of all, I’m happy for Kyle.”

Hendricks felt like he made a ton of progress in his start, which was his first this season allowing three runs or fewer. The biggest gain was that he was able to stay off the barrel. Only three of the 11 balls he allowed into play were hard-hit (95 mph or greater exit velocity).

The hardest-struck of those led to the only run on Hendricks’ line, but he nearly escaped that one without damage, too. Oneil Cruz hit a sinker on the inner half of the plate at 112.7 mph, but it had a towering 47 degree launch angle. Still, it was able to just creep over the Clemente Wall in right field for a solo homer.

“I thought there was maybe a chance, but it’s a short porch out there,” Hendricks said. “You never like a ball going out there to that side of the field.”

Hendricks’ biggest area of work is getting ahead of batters. He only allowed two hits, but he issued four walks. But even in his longer at-bats, where his pitches were a little bit off, Hendricks felt he was on the right track.

“There were a couple of points there where I lost it and sprayed a couple of balls, but for the most part, I was in my mechanics,” Hendricks said. “I was feeling my lanes. I was back down in the zone a little bit. My changeups were down. So it’s a lot closer. That’s what it’s telling me. It’s just the consistency now.”

How will Hendricks sustain a run of starts like this one? A big part of it comes in his mental game.

On Sunday, the process he worked on while on the IL played a big role: Locking in on a pitch, committing to it, making a good pitch (note: not a perfect pitch) and “living with the results.”

“Just really locking in and going pitch to pitch, not letting those extra thoughts creep in -- the negative, the fear I was talking about,” Hendricks said. “So I was just way better at going pitch to pitch, committing to what I was throwing and throwing it with good intent through the glove.”

Hendricks’ arrival should help boost a pitching group which has been affected by injuries early in the season. Jameson Taillon has been delayed by back stiffness after a blazing start to the year. Starting options Drew Smyly (right hip impingement) and Jordan Wicks (left forearm strain) are on the 15-day injured list, and Julian Merryweather, a specialist in holding games in 2023, is on the 60-day IL.

And if Hendricks can sustain Sunday’s success while the starting rotation continues its run to begin 2024, boasting a 3.26 ERA entering the series finale, it could be crucial for the Cubs in the standings.

“It’s nice to see him back on the bump,” said Patrick Wisdom, who homered in the three-run 10th inning. “It’s so cool to see him prep so much and then go out there and execute what he’s trying to do. I just really enjoy watching him work, being around him and he’s always watching the games. It was big for us and big for him, too.”