In what became the two greatest victories in franchise history, the Chicago Cubs turned to a pitcher so unassuming that his Twitter bio still refers to him as a right-handed pitcher “in the Chicago Cubs organization.” That’s right: despite posting the best ERA in Major League Baseball this season, Kyle Hendricks ’12 still hasn’t bothered to update this description of himself to reflect his status as a dominating starter, Cy Young frontrunner and World Series champion. In short, 2016 has been good to the right-hander from southern California.
In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, with the Cubs on the verge of returning to the World Series for the first time since 1945, manager Joe Maddon handed the ball to Hendricks, and Hendricks delivered a gem. 7.1 innings. Zero runs. Two hits. Six strikeouts. Hendricks, known to his teammates as the Professor, was dealing. After giving up a one out single in the top of the eighth, Hendricks walked off the mound to a thunderous ovation from the Wrigley faithful. The Professor had done his job.
He walked off the mound the way he always did: eyes down, cap brim low, arms relaxed at his sides. He raised his hand for a moment to acknowledge the roaring crowd. With Hendricks, there is never any emotion. He is consistently calm, whether he strikes out five consecutive batters or gives up five runs (not that he’s giving up even one run very often these days).
After the Cubs scored two in the bottom of the first, it felt as though the team had a stranglehold for the remainder of the game because of its starting pitcher. Throughout the night, even the best of the Los Angeles Dodgers hitters appeared off-balance and uncomfortable, perpetually struggling to square up pitches and seldom ever making hard contact.
The pressure was firmly on Hendricks. He played for the best team in baseball, yet he was running up against Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ starting pitcher who most baseball fans would describe as the greatest pitcher of this generation.
While Kershaw faltered under the bright lights of the clinching game, Hendricks, in his characteristic way, did not flinch. Maddon needed him to get the ball to his bullpen with a lead, ideally pitching five or six strong innings. Hendricks responded with a dominant performance, passing the ball to the pen up 5-0 and only needing to record five outs to send the Cubs to the Fall Classic.
After the Cubs fell behind 3-1 to the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, its prospects appeared bleak, and it looked as though Hendricks may not get another shot to pitch, having shut out the Indians in his Game 3 start only to watch the bullpen allow the Indians to take a 1-0 lead to win the game. However, excellent starts by Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta opened the door for Hendricks to get one final, winner-take-all start.
In many ways, it looked like the perfect recipe for success: the Cubs would send baseball’s most unflappable pitcher to the mound in what may have been the biggest game in the sport’s history. By the time Hendricks got the ball, a lead-off Dexter Fowler home run had already given the Cubs a 1-0 lead. The Professor would take control from there.
Hendricks only went 4.2 innings this time and did allow one earned run, but he left the game with the Cubs in complete control. It seemed a strange move to pull Hendricks so early. He pitched well and appeared to have plenty left in the tank, but Maddon decided he had seen enough.
This choice nearly blew up in Maddon’s face. The Chicago bullpen was unable to shut the door, squandering a huge late lead and sending the game to extra innings, but you already know that story. Jason Heyward fired up the Cubs with a rousing speech from somewhere deep in the bowels of Progressive Field. Ben Zobrist ripped a double to score Albert Almora Jr. Miguel Montero drove in Anthony Rizzo. Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery tag-teamed the ninth, and the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908.
If they hadn’t been able to stage that 10th inning rally and had failed to take back the lead and clinch the game and the series, the Cubs’ wily manager would have taken intense criticism, particularly for his choice to lift Hendricks so early.
However, while these bullpen missteps did cost Hendricks the chance to be the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the World Series, they did not cost the Cubs the win. Once again, throughout his start and even in the dugout once his job was done, Hendricks did not show any emotion, at least not until the final out had been recorded.
Hendricks has been baseball’s breakout star of 2016. He went from the anonymous “RHP in the Chicago Cubs organization” to the ace of a historically good rotation. He started and dominated in the two biggest games in Cubs’ history. I think it’s pretty safe to say, Hendricks can finally update that twitter to “RHP for the Chicago Cubs” because I don’t think he’s getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa any time soon.