PHILADELPHIA — Kris Bryant had been out for so long that his return was certain to make headlines, especially with two hits and a strong night in the field during a victory over a possible playoff opponent.
But if you weren’t paying attention to Kyle Hendricks in all the Bryant hoopla Saturday, then you missed the biggest reason the Cubs got hot in mid-August and carried it into September with a 7-1 win over a Phillies team they might see again in October.
“We have five qualified guys that can go out there and take the ball every fifth day and get the job done,” said Hendricks (11-10), who has lowered his season ERA 34 points over his last three starts, including another impressive six innings Saturday.
“It starts with Jon [Lester] and Cole [Hamels],” he said. “They have a presence. They’ve been around — just the confidence they have in what they do.
“They’ve really been setting the tone for us.”
During an 11-5 run that started Aug. 16, a starting rotation that has underachieved most of the season has a 2.36 ERA in that span.
“We feel we’re in a good spot, the way we’ve been playing [lately] especially,” Hendricks said. “Different parts of the team have been picking it up [all year]. The bullpen was solid in the beginning, obviously, the lineup in the middle, and now us starters have been doing a lot better lately.
“It’s all kind of coming together now and it’s really fun.”
With the addition of impact leadoff man Daniel Murphy five games into that streak and Bryant coming off the disabled list, the offense gave Hendricks a 2-0 lead before he took the mound and extended it to 4-0 before he encountered any type of jam.
Hendricks limited the damage to one run after giving up three consecutive singles to open the fourth. He allowed only two singles after that.
“Kyle was outstanding,” manager Joe Maddon said.
“Definitely as locked in as I’ve felt for the most part [this season],” Hendricks said.
The potential playoff rotation of Lester, Hamels, Hendricks and Jose Quintana has combined to go 7-1 with a 1.45 ERA the last three turns.
“Everything’s different now,” said Quintana, who pitched well in an extra-inning loss to the Phillies Friday night. “It’s the last month of the season and everybody is [on their] game. Winning games is so hard at this point.”
And almost impossible in a pennant race without good starting pitching.
“We know this last month is going to be big for us, because the two teams behind us are not stopping. They’re coming hard,” Hendricks said of the Cardinals (who lost to the Reds) and the Brewers.
“We know we’ve got to just keep playing good baseball but focus on ourselves and what we do in here.”
There was no getting around the attention Bryant commanded in his long-awaited return to the lineup.
“That’s huge,” Hendricks said. “It’s just inserting one guy, but he’s a special guy. It completely changes the lineup. To see him do what he did today right out of the gate was awesome. It’s going to be big for us going down the stretch. He’s obviously a huge part of this team.”
Bryant, who hadn’t played since July 23 because of a sore left shoulder, didn’t miss a beat, going 2-for-4. He also handled six fielding chances at third without a blip.
“Most importantly I felt good,” he said. “The first at-bat [strikeout] was a little [rushed]. But as the game went on it felt completely normal. It was fun to be out there again competing.”