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Kyle Hendricks could be this year’s X-factor for Cubs in playoffs

Kyle Hendricks has one more regular-season start Sunday — with Cy Young votes, his sub-2.00 ERA and Cubs momentum on the line.

OAKLAND, Calif. – It’s why Jon Lester was brought in before last season on that huge free agent deal. It’s what Jake Arrieta became with last year’s Cy Young season. And it’s what John Lackey was supposed to help provide when he signed last winter.

The key to a Cubs postseason. The big-game difference maker. A pitcher you can build a playoff series around.

Don’t look now, but is it possible that force of October been under the Cubs’ nose all along?

“Right now the way he’s pitching, his stuff plays anywhere,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Kyle Hendricks, the so-called fifth starter who might be pitching better than anyone in baseball right now.

With Sunday’s dazzling performance in a 3-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics, Hendricks (11-7) earned his seventh victory in eight decisions and essentially took over the majors league lead in ERA.

His 2.17 ERA ranks second only to the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, who is on the disabled list and 12 team games away from no longer qualifying for the lead.

“It’s a good stat I guess, to have at the top, but I’m not focused on that,” said Hendricks, who pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowing just two infield singles before an eighth-inning home run by Marcus Semien, the last batter he faced. “It’s just about simple thoughts and making pitches.”

It’s also about command and confidence that seem to get better with every start and a 90-mph fastball that looks as hard as anything Arrieta throws when played against the best changeup on the staff.

“When you’re rolling like this you just try to stay in that same mindset,” he said, “and keep doing your same work.”

And, in this case, keep making a case for a prominent place in the Cy Young conversation – as well as in the Cubs’ postseason rotation plans.

“Give him credit, man,” Maddon said. “A lot of people doing want to give a guy credit enough because he doesn’t throw hard enough, but this guy really knows what he’s doing as a pitcher.”

That’s been the case since the Dartmouth grad compiled his own hitter charts and pitching plans in the minors and since an eye-opening 13-start debut with the Cubs in 2014 (7-2, 2.46 ERA).

He has quietly put together a 26-16 record with a 3.04 ERA in 66 career starts.

“Kyle’s known now to pitch since he’s come in the league, and you just see his confidence getting higher and higher,” said Anthony Rizzo, who drove in a run Sunday with an eighth-inning double. “His stuff is unbelievable. It’s always been unbelievable. Now he’s just really putting it where he wants, and it’s fun to play behind him.”

One start after a seven-hit shutout, he might have pitched even better Sunday. In fact, the only reason he gave up a run at all might have had something to do with his pregame priority of not walking anyone (first time since June 17).

“I just fell behind Semien 3-1, and I said, `Here it is,’ and he hit it,” Hendricks said with a laugh. “When you’ve got a lead sometimes you fall behind and you’d rather not walk a guy and make him work his way on.”

He was working on a fifth scoreless outing in six starts until then.