Back in spring training, the question was put to Kyle Hendricks like this: Of all the players on the Cubs, at all positions, who’s likeliest in 2017 to pull a Hendricks?
“What’s a Hendricks?” was the pitcher’s understandable, if a bit coy, reply.
Simple, really. A Hendricks is when a non-star player bursts to the forefront with a star season. For the 2016 World Series-winning Cubs — perhaps you remember them — that guy was Hendricks, who led all big-league starters in ERA and finished third in National League Cy Young voting.
“OK, I get it,” he said. “Mike Montgomery really sticks out to me. I mean, he’s got the pure stuff — you can see that — and his curveball is next-level. I think he’s got everything he needs to be a great pitcher. This could be a really big year for him.”
Two years ago at this time, Montgomery was in his first month as a big-leaguer, with the Mariners, and in a stirringly good stretch of seven starts that included back-to-back complete-game shutouts. Where the 27-year-old lefty has gone from there has been perhaps a bit confusing, though not necessarily discouraging.
Montgomery spent nearly all of last season — half of it in Seattle, half with the Cubs — as a reliever. And he’s still a central figure in the Cubs’ bullpen, though Wednesday he made a second consecutive start since Hendricks went on the 10-day disabled list with tendinitis in his pitching hand. Montgomery pitched well for five innings and left the game with a chance at a victory.
You don’t need anyone to remind you who got the save in Game 7 of the World Series. (Hint: It wasn’t Aroldis Chapman.) Montgomery has parlayed that magical moment into an outstanding first full season with the Cubs.
“He has won ballgames for us, kept us in ballgames, given us long innings in areas we’ve really needed,” Hendricks said. “He’s just such a valuable piece for us, and also having that versatility where he can start? It’s almost more valuable than being a starter.”
That might be true, but let’s not kid ourselves: Montgomery wants into the starting rotation for good. He was clear on that front in the spring, even as it seemed unlikely with the signing of free agent Brett Anderson. His preference didn’t waver after Anderson bombed and the Cubs called up Eddie Butler.
“I know he loves starting,” Hendricks said.
But Montgomery will roll with whatever task is set before him, because that’s just who he is. It’s who Hendricks is, too, which probably has a lot to do with why they’ve clicked so naturally as friends.
It started after Montgomery’s first appearance as a Cub, in the finale of a series in Milwaukee. Montgomery boarded the team bus having no concept of how close Miller Park was to Chicago. He looked around and saw only two fellow passengers. One was Ben Zobrist, the other Hendricks.
Montgomery poured his 6-5 self into a seat, started playing Boom Beach on his phone and looked at his pair of new teammates when he realized the bus door was closing.
“Is it really just us?” he asked.
No. There also was a pizza waiting for them to dig in. But the rest of the Cubs were driving home.
Montgomery was filled in on Chicago, a city he’d never even visited. He was filled in on his teammates, the clubhouse vibe, the fans and the neighborhood around the ballpark, where both Zobrist and Hendricks lived. (Montgomery would end up there, too.)
Eventually, Zobrist shut his eyes and Montgomery and Hendricks settled into a deep discussion about pitching. Montgomery was fascinated and inspired by Hendricks’ command of, and commitment to, the finer points of the craft. A partnership of sorts was born; the bookish Hendricks, an avid studier and eager collaborator, was glad to have a fellow Californian aboard.
Nearly a year later, Hendricks remains a big believer in Montgomery’s future as a starter. Though “pulling a Hendricks” this season won’t be easy, with fewer than 100 games to go and no apparent opening in the rotation.
“You have to think it has to happen eventually,” Hendricks said. “And when it does, I know he’ll be ready.”
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.