ST. LOUIS – Despite that sparkling ERA and the huge second-half run, does anybody feel sure Kyle Hendricks can keep that up when the games get bigger?
In the biggest game of his magical season, Hendricks took a no-hitter into the ninth inning Monday night against the Cardinals in St. Louis before Jeremy Hazelbaker drove an 0-2 pitch over the right-field wall leading off the ninth to break it up.
He didn’t get the no-hitter. But consider Hendricks’ statement made with what might prove the signature start of his Cy Young candidacy – culminating in a 4-1 victory over the rival Cardinals that kept alive the Cubs’ hopes of clinching the division title at Busch Stadium on Wednesday.
“That was, I would guess, his best major league performance ever,” manager Joe Maddon said. “A spectacular performance. It’s got to elevate him in the minds of the people voting [for the Cy Young Award] right now.”
Hendricks (15-7) gave up two walks, but nobody reached second until the homer, and he faced the minimum possible until walking Jedd Gyorko with two out in the eighth.
Never in trouble, Hendricks also never seemed to sweat – a trait that has become a big part of his growing reputation and success.
“I was pretty calm, actually,” said Hendricks, who settled in after what he called his worst pregame bullpen session of the year. “I was definitely thinking about it from probably the fifth inning. It creeps into your mind. Guys started getting quiet and not talking to me. It’s a different mental approach, a situation I really haven’t been in.”
That could describe much of his breakout season, which began as the Cubs’ fifth starter and is finishing strong as a potential Game 2 playoff starter.
Monday’s performance, which reduced the Cubs’ magic number for clinching the division title to three games and reduced Hendricks’ major-league-leading ERA to 2.03, reminded Maddon of the kind of dominance Jake Arrieta his in his no-hitter in Los Angeles late last season on the way to the Cy Young Award.
“It’s a different form of dominance,” Maddon said of Hendricks, who relies on the best changeup on the staff and spotting a fastball more than 5 mph behind Arrieta’s.
“Everybody wants dominance to be pure force,” Maddon said. “Finesse can be dominant.”
Even Hendricks considered his pitching style and said: “Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever really get that close to one.”
Maddon pulled Hendricks after the home run on his 96th pitch, in a continuing effort to preserve pitches and innings on his staff for October.
But not before Maddon got ejected by home plate ump Joe West, who took issue with the Cubs’ infielders hanging out on the mound with Hendricks as reliever Aroldis Chapman warmed up. Maddon’s ensuing debate assured enough time for Chapman to get ready.
“It’s not about that moment; it’s about Kyle,” Maddon said.
Hendricks struck out seven and got help – spectacular at times – from his fielders.
On back-to-back plays in the sixth, Addison Russell robbed Jhonny Peralta of a hit, ranging to the hole and making a quick throw for the first out of the inning, followed by right-fielder Jason Heyward reaching over the first row for a foul popup.
Heyward kept hold of the catch despite a fan in a Cardinals shirt trying to wrestle the ball from his glove as teammate Javy Baez fought off the fan.
In the seventh, third baseman Kris Bryant lunged to his left to snare Stephen Piscotty’s smash, before scrambling to his feet to throw him out by a step.
Hendricks did the rest, with the best start yet during a streak of 20 consecutive starts allowing three or fewer runs – the 13th in that stretch in which he has allowed one or none.
“Today was just one of those days everything was starting to fall into place for me,” he said.
And if anybody’s still wondering how sustainable that is into next month?
“I don’t see why not,” Maddon said. “Everything’s there.”