WASHINGTON — Thank you, Joe Maddon.
The Cubs’ manager finally let Kyle Hendricks be a big-boy pitcher. He let him go seven innings Friday night, even if every fiber of his being was telling him to do what he usually does with the pitcher who looks more grad student than big-league hurler.
OK, sure, if you want to be a stickler, Maddon did have Jon Jay waiting to bat for Hendricks in the seventh if Javy Baez got on base (he struck out). So let’s not declare Maddon cured of his intrusiveness. But let’s pat the skipper on the back in the hopes that he’ll see that Hendricks is his ace and has been for quite some time.
Maddon took off the training wheels, and it was a huge factor in the Cubs’ stunning 3-0 victory against the Nationals in Game 1 of their National League Division Series. Funny how one game can change perceptions. For example, the Nationals used to have home-field advantage. And the underdog tag doesn’t fit the Cubs so well anymore, does it?
A lot of that has to do with Hendricks. He mowed down the Nationals’ vaunted lineup, or as much as an 89 mph fastball can mow down anything. He gave up two hits, one to Bryce Harper and one to Michael Taylor. Everybody else looked human. Hendricks left the game after seven innings, having thrown 106 pitches in a six-strikeout performance.
In his five previous playoff games, Hendricks had been allowed to pitch into the sixth inning only twice. He was pulled after 4‰ innings of Game 7 of last year’s World Series, despite having given up only one run.
One pitch against the Nats would have explained Hendricks perfectly to someone who had never seen him before. It was an 81 mph changeup in the third inning that made Harper look so impaired that you wanted to take his car keys away from him.
In Hendricks’ last five postseason games, including two World Series games, he has an ERA of 0.63. There is seeing the light, and then there’s the light being flashed in a certain somebody’s face.
“This is as good as I’ve seen him,’’ Maddon said.
“Maybe not best ever, but it was up there,’’ Hendricks said. “It was a pretty good one. Early in the game, I was a little up [in the strike zone]. There were a few balls on the barrel. After about the third inning, I really started dialing it in.’’
Maddon said Hendricks’ velocity was up, with his fastball hitting 91 mph, but Hendricks said that it might have been adrenaline talking. It’s almost beside the point. He’s as fast as he needs to be. He’s all about location. He’s understatement and precision. What he is is the Cubs’ best pitcher. Someday, the world will realize this. He’ll make that happen, perfectly placed pitch by perfectly placed pitch.
What a beautiful game this was. Hendricks and Stephen Strasburg engaged in a pitchers’ duel of such excellence and such stark contrasts that everything else seemed to be beside the point.
Only human error could derail the hard-throwing Strasburg. He was so good, so on top of his game, that it was clear within a few innings that only something beneath him, something vulgar like human frailty, could bring him down to earth.
And so it was that a very bad error by third baseman Anthony Rendon in the sixth inning completely changed the complexion of a ballgame. He bobbled a Baez grounder over the bag. I don’t know if it was an insult to the baseball gods, but after Hendricks bunted Baez to second base, Kris Bryant knocked him in with a single. And Anthony Rizzo drove in Bryant.
What had been a no-hitter by Strasburg through 5‰ innings suddenly was a 2-0 lead that looked insurmountable, thanks to Strasburg’s opposite being on the mound for the Cubs.
“Their guy was so good, and so was ours,’’ Maddon said.
You were good, too, Joe.
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