Kyle Hendricks returns to ERA-crown form as Cubs beat Reds

Is Kyle Hendricks the Cubs’ ace?

Come on.

Of course, he is.

Hendricks is the first starter to right himself and hit the kind of commanding stride the team has desperately needed.

Kyle Hendricks returns to the dugout after squeezing home a run in the third on a bunt Wednesday.

“That was classic Kyle right there,” manager Joe Maddon said after Hendricks stymied the Reds for much of six innings for a 7-5 victory at Wrigley Field that assured the Cubs’ first series victory in two weeks.

Hendricks (3-2) doesn’t throw nearly as hard as the others in the rotation. He doesn’t get the rope to often push  past the 100-pitch or six-inning mark (see: Game 7, Nov. 2).

He doesn’t have Jake Arrieta’s Cy Young Award, Jon Lester’s four All-Star appearances or John Lackey’s growl.

But what the right-hander from Dartmouth can do with an 86-mph fastball and a plan could quickly become the most important thing the Cubs have going for them as they try to resemble a playoff team again.

Already on a four-start roll heading into Wednesday night, the slight Hendricks took the mound looking more like a threat to get knocked over by the 24-mph wind gusting toward left than a threat to shut down one of the top slugging teams in the league.

But using a fastball that rarely reached 87 mph, a changeup 7 or 8 mph slower and a healthy fear of the middle of the strike zone, last year’s major-league ERA leader (2.13) turned in a second consecutive quality start in adverse conditions (also last week at Coors Field).

“Much closer [to 2016 finishing form],” said Hendricks, who has a 1.82 ERA in his last five starts. “This game was one of my better ones for sure, too, just because I got stronger in the later innings. My last three innings felt much better, much more under control.”

Pitching coach Chris Bosio, who returned from a brief personal leave, helped with a mid-start cue from the bench, said Hendricks, who started pitching harder inside as the game went on and retired nine of 10 in his final three innings.

“I just saw they were trying to dive out a little bit with that wind today,” he said.

He allowed two runs to the Reds — and only that many because of a pickoff play his infielders botched in the first inning.

After Billy Hamilton’s single leading off the game, Hendricks had the speedy Hamilton picked off. First baseman Anthony Rizzo threw to shortstop Addison Russell, then got caught flat-footed on the throw back from Russell and missed the tag as Hamilton slid back into first.

Hamilton then stole second and scored on Zack Cozart’s single. Cozart later added a solo homer in the third, the only mistake pitch of the start.

To put his outing in perspective, as soon as he left the game, Mike Montgomery got tagged for three runs in the seventh — ending his streak of consecutive scoreless innings at 18. Two scored after Montgomery was replaced by Pedro Strop, who gave up a two-run double to Eugenio Suarez.

 

A stadium worker removes a piece of Kris Bryant’s broken bat from the backstop after it stuck there in the first inning.

To be fair, Lester has had some of the best stuff among the starters since the start of the season. Lackey has been especially sharp in his last two starts. And Arrieta looked better the last time out in particular.

“They’re all trending in the right direction,” Maddon said.

“But what you saw tonight is what Kyle’s supposed to look like, and that’s very encouraging moving forward.”

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