Hendricks throws Cubs' first Maddux since 2009

Righty holds Cards to 4 singles in 81-pitch gem to open rivalry series

May 3rd, 2019

CHICAGO -- Moments after put on a clinic of precision and efficiency against the Cardinals out on the Wrigley Field mound, there were a pair of former Cubs pitchers lingering in a doorway to Chicago's locker room. That the men in question were Jon Lieber and Carlos Zambrano was serendipitous.

During a 4-0 victory on Friday afternoon, Hendricks cruised through the Cardinals lineup with just 81 pitches over nine brilliant innings. It marked the first time a Cubs pitcher threw a Maddux (fewer than 100 pitches in a complete-game shutout) since Zambrano achieved the feat in 2009, and only Lieber had fewer pitches (78 against the Reds on May 24, 2001) in a shutout in recorded Cubs history.

"I remember it all," Lieber said with a smile.

Their brief visit to the Cubs' clubhouse was pure chance. Hendricks' performance was not.

Hendricks' showing against the National League Central-leading Cardinals was calculated and the result of a plan executed to perfection after he and catcher identified St. Louis' approach. The right-hander relies on strike-zone command, and St. Louis tried to capitalize by being aggressive in early-count situations. It was up to Hendricks to find a way to use that to his advantage.

Hendricks went to his fastballs 22 times on the first pitch and then featured heaters (four-seam or sinkers) 11 times in 15 situations with 0-1 counts. If he slipped behind 1-0, he focused more on his changeup (four of seven). The result was 17 balls in play within the first two pitches of at-bats. St. Louis had four singles scattered in that cluster of quick outcomes, but Hendricks never had a runner advance beyond second.

"Really masterful job," Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. "Tip your hat. Did a nice job, he really did. That was pitching, the art of pitching. Controlling counts. Changing speeds. In and out of the zone. Had our guys off-balance. Did a really nice job against a really good lineup."

When it was all said and done, Hendricks had no walks, three strikeouts and received all the support he required when launched a three-run homer in the third off Jack Flaherty. Hendricks averaged 2.7 pitches per plate appearance and registered 10 or fewer pitches in eight of his nine innings.

"I didn't know the exact number, but I knew it was low," Hendricks said of his pitch count. "Also, Willy and I did a really good job of recognizing how aggressive they were early, even to start the game. So, once we made good pitches within the first two of the at-bat, they kind of kept being aggressive and we just were able to take advantage."

Hendricks laughed when asked if he was available to pitch on Saturday.

"For sure," he said.

Complete pitch data is only available dating to 1988, but Hendricks' performance tied for the fourth-lowest pitch total in a nine-inning shutout on record. Lieber's 78-pitch gem is lowest total on the list. Hendricks spun the first nine-inning shutout in MLB on fewer than 90 pitches since Sept. 21, 2015, (Jeff Samardzija for the White Sox) and had the fewest pitches in a nine-inning shutout since Aaron Cook had 81 for the Red Sox on June 29, 2012.

"It just doesn't happen," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "When you've got an aggressive group, if you can dot up -- throw that ball where you want to -- you're going to get a lot of quick outs, which he did. That's why I love the fastball. Guys that really command their fastball are the guys that are able to get quick outs and pitch more deeply into the game."

It's not like the Cardinals do not know the book on Hendricks, though.

Part of the reasoning for swinging early and often is due to the righty's propensity for staying in and around the zone. Just one start ago, Hendricks gave up seven runs on 10 hits in five innings in a road outing against the D-backs. Heading into Friday's meeting with St. Louis, he had a 5.33 ERA on the season and had encountered the bulk of his issues in the first inning.

When Hendricks got through the first on Friday on 10 pitches, that cleared hurdle allowed him to lock in.

"He tries to use the deception and your aggression to get you out," Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. "That was something that we talked about. We tried to keep him in the zone, but not take too many pitches. He's going to throw strikes. He's going to come at you. It’s just a matter of if you can sneak some base hits in there and get him."

To that end, St. Louis did have 10 of the 15 hardest-hit balls in the game. Behind Hendricks, Chicago's defenders were also putting on a show. Shortstop Javier Baez made a slick sliding grab on a Paul DeJong grounder in the fourth. Center fielder Jason Heyward made a sliding catch (50 percent catch probability, per Statcast) to rob Jose Martinez in the eighth. Kris Bryant made a couple standout plays at third base.

"When we play defense like that and pitch like that, we know that's the formula," Rizzo said.

That formula has helped the Cubs win 16 of their last 22 games to pull within 1 1/2 games of the first-place Cardinals.

"Our guys are pretty sharp mentally right now. That's really what's controlling all this," Maddon said. "There's a feel. Analytically speaking, it's hard to describe and you cannot put numbers on it. It's a feel and it exists. There's another dimension out there, brother."

Maybe that explains Lieber and Zambrano showing up at Wrigley on this specific day. The baseball universe was aligned.