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Resurgence of Hendricks a boon to Cubs

NEW YORK -- While much of the national attention has been focused on the Cubs' touted position-player prospects -- Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell -- Kyle Hendricks was having a lot of success last season as a rookie starter.

Hendricks may not have gotten a lot of notoriety outside the Friendly Confines, but he was 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts, which was just another reason to believe the Cubs could contend.

Unfortunately, this year hasn't gone as smoothly for the 25-year-old. He's had some really good games but, overall, hasn't been able to find a consistent groove. So the Cubs are hoping that he's back on track after shutting out the Mets for six innings on three hits in a 1-0 win at Citi Field on Tuesday night. That raised his record to 3-4 and lowered his ERA to 4.15.

Afterward, Hendricks revealed the advice that manager Joe Maddon has been giving him all season.

"He hasn't pulled me aside just one-on-one to talk. But when I see him, he just tells me to be myself. Every day he sees me, 'Hey, just be yourself.' And that's been a thing for me," Hendricks said. "At times I've tried to do too much mentally. Sometimes physically, too, with my mechanics. At the end of the day I need to be myself and just go out there and pitch my game. This was much better. I just focused mentally on every pitch, to make a good pitch. That was the only thought I had."

The Cubs and Mets have this much in common: Both are teams on the rise. In fact, as the regular season approaches its midpoint, they are neck-and-neck in contention for the second National League Wild Card spot.

That's just about where the similarities end, though. The Mets are a team built around its amazing young starting pitching. Matt Harvey. Noah Syndergaard. Jacob deGrom. And, most recently, Steven Matz. With Zack Wheeler expected to return from Tommy John surgery in 2016, the Mets are well-armed for the future. The Cubs have focused on hitting, but even teams that can slug need good pitching to complement the lineup.

And that's why Hendricks' strong effort Tuesday was so important. If he gets on a roll, that would clearly be a big boost for a franchise whose manager's uniform number -- 70 -- just happens to match the number of years since the Cubs last appeared in the World Series.

Hendricks has been his own toughest critic. Before this start, he called his performance to date "unacceptable." He worked in the bullpen on mechanical issues such as aligning his delivery and not hooking his fastball.

"I was definitely in my lane better, trying to get up-and-down misses instead of getting misses side to side, too. That's just a bullpen thing you work on. I was out there in the game, honestly, I wasn't that sharp. My fastball command still isn't there. But that's something you work on in bullpens," he explained.

The bigger difference was Hendricks' ability to lock in and focus on each pitch.

"That's it. Keeping it as simple as possible," he said. "And I was able to do that, so hopefully I can keep it rolling."

He certainly made it look simple against the Mets. In six innings, only one baserunner got as far as second -- third baseman Daniel Murphy, who doubled with one out in the fourth. He walked only one and struck out six while throwing 90 pitches, 52 for strikes. He pitched well enough that Maddon was asked if he had thought about leaving him in the game longer.

"If you do that in a 1-0 ballgame and one guy gets on, you're going to bring somebody else in anyway. So why not give that guy a clean slate?" the manager said.

"We pitched really well. I'll take that kind of pitching. [Hendricks] was primarily [working] with counts in his favor. Then when he got behind, he was able to command his changeup well. That was a big part of it."

The Cubs also had a rested bullpen after an off-day Monday, and Hendricks had gone 3-0 to the final two batters he faced in the sixth, walking Lucas Duda before getting Murphy to fly out.

Hendricks' strong performance helped the Cubs end a five-game losing streak, so it was a significant evening on a couple of levels.

"It felt really good. I can't lie about that," he said. "Obviously, it's been a struggle as of late. Not just for me. For the team, too. So it was nice to get back in the win column."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for
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