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Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish to follow No. 1 starter Jon Lester in Cubs rotation

Hendricks pitches against the Dodgers in the playoffs last year.

MESA, Ariz. — Two years ago, Kyle Hendricks still was trying to prove he deserved to be a fifth starter for the Cubs.

On Wednesday, manager Joe Maddon elevated him to the No. 2 spot to start the 2018 season. The only question left is why he isn’t the opening-day starter.

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“Kyle’s time is coming,” Maddon said. “Guys like Kyle, their day’s going to come when they get that opportunity to be an opening-day starter. I’m certain that’s going to happen.”

The Cubs will roll out three pitchers who started the opener for their team last year: Jon Lester, who’s making his second consecutive opening start for the Cubs; Yu Darvish, who will follow Hendricks after starting the Rangers’ opener last year; and No. 4 starter Jose Quintana, who opened for the White Sox last year.

But not the one who started Game 1 of the playoffs for the Cubs last year and won the major-league ERA title the year before.

“Who cares about the first game?” Hendricks said, laughing. “I’ll take the last game. Always.”

Hendricks, who started Game 7 in the Cubs’ World Series victory over the Indians in 2016, said after his sharp spring debut Wednesday that it meant a lot just to be considered the No. 2 starter, especially ahead of Darvish, a $126 million, four-time All-Star.

“A few years ago, I would not have expected that,” Hendricks said. “Those aren’t goals of mine, but if that’s happening, that means the goals that I’m setting for myself are coming through. I’m putting in the work, the results are coming and I’m so lucky to be in this system and have these guys around me.”

The fifth starter in the rotation is right-hander Tyler Chatwood, who arrives with big expectations for a breakout year after getting out of Colorado’s Coors Field.

The Cubs open with a four-game series against the Marlins in Miami, starting March 29, followed by two games in Cincinnati and four in Milwaukee before Lester starts the home opener April 9 against the Pirates.

The order assures the two lefties (Lester and Quintana) are spaced and provides starkly different right-handed looks after Lester in a given series, with the power pitching Darvish following the changeup/command specialist Hendricks.

Those right-handed looks are scheduled to open the Cubs’ first rivalry series, against the Brewers.

The Cubs are emphasizing a fast start, which they didn’t get in 2017 after a long postseason and emotionally taxing offseason that followed their historic championship. And Hendricks, who has had no issues with the finger that put him on the disabled list last year, said he already feels fresher than he did a year ago.

“We learned a lot about how to prepare ourselves in the offseason,” he said. “So the work I put in this offseason just really got me back in shape.

“Coming off ’16, maybe we babied it too much. You’ve got to put the work in. I definitely feel fresh and strong right now.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Cubs’ Opening Rotation:

  • 1. LH Jon Lester, March 29 at Miami
  • 2. RH Kyle Hendricks, March 30 at Miami
  • 3. RH Yu Darvish, March 31 at Miami
  • 4. LH Jose Quintana, April 1 at Miami
  • 5. RH Tyler Chatwood, April 2 at Cincinnati