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Kyle Hendricks finally looked more like the ace the Chicago Cubs need to set the tone for the rest of the rotation.
For a starting pitching staff that hasn’t produced much positive momentum this season, Hendricks’ form during Tuesday’s 7-1 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of a split doubleheader showed signs of what has made the right-hander successful. And in the process, the Cubs gained a different dynamic. Their starters haven’t made enough quality starts. Hendricks’ seven-inning complete game represented the most innings pitched by a Cubs starter in 30 games.
David Bote’s walk-off single in extra innings secured the Cubs’ doubleheader sweep with a 4-3 victory.
Jason Heyward’s home run off Dodgers right-hander Trevor Bauer in the fourth stood as the lone run in Game 2 heading into the seventh. One swing from Max Muncy changed that. His home run in the seventh off Craig Kimbrel — the Cubs closer’s first earned run allowed since Aug. 29 — tied the game and forced extra innings.
The Dodgers scored two more in the top of the eighth, but Javier Báez’s two-out, two-run homer tied it again. Justin Steele earned his first major-league win with a clean ninth, setting up Bote’s walk-off hit in the bottom of the inning. The Cubs offense went 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 13 on base.
“You feel like every little thing is going against us and we come up with two nice wins,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “It really speaks to the character of the group. They battle, man. They battle. I thought tonight is starting to be the character of this team.”
Right-hander Keegan Thompson pitched well in his first big-league start. He gave up two hits in 3⅔ scoreless innings. Thompson, a third-round pick by the Cubs in 2017, induced two double plays to help him work around early trouble.
“It’s just like a dream,” Thompson said. “I mean, Wrigley is one of the oldest stadiums in the league and just such a cool atmosphere. Just to be a part of it, it always has been a dream to throw out here, so it was really cool.”
Hendricks’ outing in the opener was an important development. Too often the rotation hasn’t been competitive, forcing Ross to rely on his bullpen for bulk innings. Hendricks going the distance in the shortened doubleheader game was a welcome reprieve and set up Ross to have the full bullpen at his disposal for Game 2.
“Kyle looked a lot more like himself from the jump,” Ross said. “I liked the angle of the fastball, and stuff was down in the zone. ... I still think he was kind of settling in early on to find his command, but it was pretty darn good throughout the game.
“He was throwing a lot of strikes, a lot of first-pitch strikes, which is characteristic of the guy I know when he’s locked in.”
Hendricks’ command issues through his first five starts spurred a 7.54 ERA and league-high 10 home runs, but he took a step in the right direction Tuesday. He scattered seven hits, walked one and struck out six. The lone run came on Keibert Ruiz’s one-out pinch-hit homer in the seventh — the Dodgers’ only extra-base hit off Hendricks.
The Cubs offense gave Hendricks a cushion to work with after a four-run first inning against Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw. Hendricks felt he did a much better job with his intent pitch to pitch, and he credited catcher Willson Contreras for locking him in.
“The boys going out and putting up four runs early was huge to help me do that,” Hendricks said. “It gave me confidence to go attack, which I’ve been trying to do better, better first-pitch strikes, attacking the strike zone — just overall made a lot more good pitches.”
Before Tuesday’s start, part of Hendricks’ struggles stemmed from consistently missing bats. Hitters made too much contact in the zone, and when they did connect, they barreled the ball for damage. Harnessing better fastball command is key for any pitcher and especially for Hendricks, who at his best uses his fastball so well around the zone, which helps play up his secondary pitches.
Hendricks has worked to simplify and get back to reliably locating at the bottom of the zone. He explained the process includes getting better timing out of his glove and keeping his hand moving. Contreras told him he looked more like himself pitch to pitch.
Hendricks’ sinker filled the strike zone against the Dodgers, generating 15 called strikes. His 16.3% called strike percentage with the pitch was his best since May 8, 2019. The movement on his sinker was a sign Hendricks worked out some kinks. In previous starts, he too often located sinkers below the zone or they leaked back over the middle and were hit hard.
“You’ve got to take advantage of every throw you make when you’re in a spot like this,” Hendricks said of his between-starts work. “Though I didn’t want to do too much, not go crazy and do all this extra stuff, just get simple focus back.”
Given the struggles he endured in April, Hendricks is taking the positives out of Tuesday’s performance and looking to replicate it the next time out.
“I saw today much better action on my sinker, was out front with my changeup too,” he said. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement. I still made some bad pitches that I got away with, so got to keep on that and create consistency now.”