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Kyle Hendricks sharp again, beats Giants as Cubs’ rotation shapes up

Hendricks retired 15 of the final 16 he faced Wednesday.

Nobody’s scheduling the 2017 parade just yet.

But the starting pitching the Cubs have been waiting to congeal for nearly two months has taken a more familiar shape in recent turns.

Kyle Hendricks followed Jon Lester’s complete game with a seven-inning gem Wednesday. He handed a late lead to the bullpen in a game the Cubs held on to win 5-4 after the Giants made it close in the ninth.

“We’re definitely picking up,” Hendricks (4-2) said, “getting our legs underneath us. You can see it from every guy — just the pitches they’re making, the life of the ball coming out of their hands.”

Granted, Hendricks pitched with an 18-mph left-field wind advantage, but he also pitched with enough precision to walk none, retire 15 of the final 16 he faced and put his ERA over his last six starts at 1.96.

Hendricks’ deepest start of the season — and third victory in four decisions — came one night after Lester continued his own personal run with a 99-pitch complete game. That came two games after Jake Arrieta didn’t allow an earned run in his six-inning victory over the Brewers.

The totals in those starts for the rotation’s top three: 3-0, 22 innings, three earned runs (1.23 ERA), 21 strikeouts and one walk.

“They’re starting to feel it a little bit,” Maddon said of a rotation that returned its top four from a group that produced a major-league-leading 2.96 ERA last season — including Cy Young finalists in Lester and Hendricks.

The most important position group in the Cubs’ effort to repeat, the rotation struggled into the sixth week, ranking in the bottom third in the majors in ERA and quality starts.

Over the last 13 starts, the Cubs’ rotation is 8-4 with a 3.10 ERA and eight quality starts.

The last walk allowed by the rotation was in the fourth inning Monday night, one of two allowed by John Lackey.

As Maddon has said several times this year: “Starting pitching is what drives the engine.”

It has helped drive the Cubs to victories in six of their eight games during this homestand — with one to play against the Giants on Thursday — after a rough trip through Colorado and St. Louis.

It hasn’t been all pitching.

Anthony Rizzo’s bat has awakened the last two games with three homers, including solo blasts in the second and fourth innings Wednesday.

Each of those shots tied the game.

“He really runs this lineup,” Hendricks said, “so when he starts getting hot, I think everybody around him [does], too.”

And Ian Happ, whose debut two games before the homestand coincided with the recent surge, has reached base in nine of his 10 big-league games.

“He’s given us a spark,” Kyle Schwarber said.

But whatever the hitters do this year, the Cubs are going to go as far as their starting pitching takes them.

Hendricks’ shut-down finish allowed the Cubs to come back twice and eventually build a 5-2 lead with single runs in the fifth, seventh and eighth.

“He was outstanding. Again,” Maddon said.

“That was probably the strongest I’ve felt deep into a game [this year],” said Hendricks, who led the majors last year with a 2.13 ERA. “The game before this was the previous time I’d felt stronger. But today, definitely the best.”

Rizzo said he thinks it has been a natural progression for the starters that has led to the recent uptick as pitch counts have been relaxed, and he expects it to continue into the summer.

“When our starters go deep, it’s always fun to play behind them,” he said.

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