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Velo differential helps Hendricks get on track

Righty shakes slow start to season with 6 scoreless vs. Pirates
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates had a runner at second base and two outs in the sixth inning against the Cubs' Kyle Hendricks, who was protecting a 1-0 lead. Hendricks got Francisco Cervelli to strike out swinging at a 78-mph changeup and pumped his fist, although you had to be paying attention to see it.

After three outings in which there wasn't much difference in velocity between his pitches, Hendricks looked more like the pitcher who finished with the best ERA in the Major Leagues last year. It was good enough for the right-hander to get the win in a 1-0 victory over the Pirates, who got a stellar effort from starter Gerrit Cole.

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PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates had a runner at second base and two outs in the sixth inning against the Cubs' Kyle Hendricks, who was protecting a 1-0 lead. Hendricks got Francisco Cervelli to strike out swinging at a 78-mph changeup and pumped his fist, although you had to be paying attention to see it.

After three outings in which there wasn't much difference in velocity between his pitches, Hendricks looked more like the pitcher who finished with the best ERA in the Major Leagues last year. It was good enough for the right-hander to get the win in a 1-0 victory over the Pirates, who got a stellar effort from starter Gerrit Cole.

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"It's just one start but definitely a lot better," Hendricks said. "I got away with some pitches early. It almost clicked the second time through the order, like about the end of the third inning. My fastball command got better, I could mix it in and out, up and down a lot better. My changeup kind of followed from there, I started throwing better curveballs. ... We'll take it. One step, one step."

Hendricks scattered four hits over six innings, striking out three. Cole limited the Cubs to two hits over seven innings, fanning eight, and Chicago's only run came on a throwing error by second baseman Alen Hanson in the second.

Video: CHC@PIT: Russell scores on Hanson's throwing error

"That part of the game, Cole was really, really on top of his stuff," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "We benefited from an error, it was that close of a game.

"I've talked about how you have to win 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 to win championships, so we'll take it."

Prior to Tuesday, Hendricks' velocity on his fastball was averaging 85.4 mph, down from 87.7 mph in 2016. According to Statcast™, that was the second-largest dip in the Majors.

Before the game, Maddon said he not only wanted to see better command by Hendricks, but he also wanted see hitters look uncomfortable at the plate.

"I always talk about the way hitters take pitches against him and you can see it kind of surprises them," Maddon said. "When you get that kind of look from a hitter, then I know the pitch is there. More than anything, an uptick velocity-wise, and a little more separation between the numbers on his fastball and his changeup -- that's the one item that will make him take off quickly."

Hendricks got into a good rhythm, and he wasn't exactly sure why things clicked.

"Maybe I fell into the flow of the game, or started trusting whatever I was trying to do better," Hendricks said. "The sensation was a little different for sure with my lower body. I could kind of see the glove a little more and I had better command of my fastball."

So, is he back?

"It's just one start," Hendricks said. "It's not in the zone, dialed in where I was at the end of last year. That was a completely different feeling and sensation. I felt a lot better, it's a lot more on track."

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.

Chicago Cubs, Kyle Hendricks