ERA leader Hendricks, Cubs rotation pit dominance vs. prudence

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Kyle Hendricks leads all of baseball in ERA and has allowed three or fewer runs in an MLB season-high 19 consecutive starts.

SAN DIEGO – Nobody could blame major-league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks for thinking after his second strong start of the Cubs’ road trip Wednesday how he might stack up in this week’s Sun-Times rotation power rankings.

“I think I’ve still gotta be up there,” said Hendricks, laughing, after surviving some trouble early to beat the San Diego Padres 6-3 for a series sweep.

In fact, Hendricks – who also shut down the Rockies for six innings at Coors Field over the weekend – takes over the top spot in the Cub rotation rankings this week, just ahead of reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

“Nobody’s pitched better than him. Nobody has,” manager Joe Maddon said of the third-year right-hander, whose ERA rose slightly, to 2.19, after he gave up a pair of early runs in his six-inning start Wednesday.

“Everybody talks about everybody else, but Kyle leads the National League in ERA,” Maddon added. “If we just scored him some runs, this guy would have a tremendous won-loss record right now.”

A Cubs rotation that leads the majors in ERA by a wide margin is steamrolling through August with at least three legitimate Cy Young candidates leading the way in Hendricks (12-8), Arrieta and Jon Lester.

The starters are 15-1 with a combined 1.83 ERA this month. The team has won 22 of its last 27 games. And it has swept five of its last seven series.

That second-half surge has provided their biggest division lead of the season, a 36-games-over-.500 record for the first time since 1945, and made the next six weeks all about October.

And that means making a priority of conservation tactics over the final 36 games, especially for a group of starters who are set up to be the reason the Cubs make history this fall – or don’t.

“That’s our game plan,” said Arrieta (16-5), who on Tuesday night took over the National League lead in victories. “We want to be as strong and as dominant as we can be, but still in the back of our mind understanding that late September, early October – mid-October – is really the most important time for us as a ballclub, as an organization.”

That’s why an “unhappy” Lester on Monday and a “mad” Arrieta on Tuesday sucked it up and focused on happy playoff thoughts when hooked from starts while still feeling strong in victories this week in San Diego.

Hendricks, who’s in a 12-start zone reminiscent of Arrieta’s Cy Young drive a year ago, doesn’t flinch when he’s told he’s done at 99 pitches, like he was Wednesday.

Arrieta wasn’t as calm the night before when he was pulled at the same number of pitches after eight scoreless innings.

“But at the same time, [Maddon] came over to me and said, `Hey, just remember last year, and let’s conserve some things for October and the end of September,’ ” said Arrieta, who has admitted that fatigue played a factor in his final two starts of the playoffs last year, when he wasn’t as sharp as he had been.

So when they laugh and jockey for position in the Sun-Times power rankings, that’s also part of the look toward October, a weeklong snapshot of their strength as they get closer to one of the toughest decisions Maddon’s staff and the front office will make: Who’s in that playoff rotation and how do they line up?

Whether one or more line up as Cy Young finalists by then, they all seem to have their focus on the three to seven starts each plans to make, starting Oct. 7 at Wrigley Field.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at,” said Hendricks after Wednesday’s eight-strikeout performance, that included retiring 12 of the final 14 he faced. “Keep the consistency, keep my pitches feeling good where they’re at, keep my command. Just staying in my routine.”

Sun-Times Rotation Power Rankings

The Cubs’ rotation leads the majors (2.85) by almost 70 ERA points – and is 15-1 with a 1.83 ERA this month. At this rate, the team’s toughest call of the year will be deciding on a playoff rotation. How the starters rank today:

Pitchers (W-L, ERA), Comment

  • 1. Kyle Hendricks (12-7, 2.19), Home stats (8-1, 1.31) scream Gm 1 or 2 start
  • 2. Jake Arrieta (16-5, 2.62), Dude, the guy is 6-0, 0.20 in Calif. last 2 yrs.
  • 3. Jon Lester (14-4, 2.81), 20 QS deserves more? “Made-up stat,” he says
  • 4. Mike Montgomery (0-0, 2.08), 4.1 IP in 1st start; Cubs expect full Monty in LA
  • 5. Jason Hammel (13-6, 3.07), What a difference a day at Coors Field makes
  • 6. Trevor Cahill (1-0, 0.00), Might be one of top 6th starters in NL Central

NR: John Lackey (9-7, 3.41, on DL with shoulder soreness); Adam Warren (0-0, 1.80, traded to Yankees); Brian Matusz (0-0, 18.00, back in minors). Note: All stats for part-time starters are for Cub starts only.

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