MESA, Ariz. — Left-hander Jon Lester, the most decorated pitcher in the Cubs’ rotation, has news for anyone who thinks the choice for Opening Day starter is a two-man proposition.
Asked if he would be surprised to see righty Yu Darvish get the nod over him, Lester quickly added a name nobody else was talking about.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see him or Kyle [Hendricks],” Lester said. “I think Kyle’s been sneaky, probably one of our best pitchers, if not the best pitcher really since I’ve been here.”
Lester’s right about Hendricks. His 3.14 career ERA is by far the best among all the starters on the roster. His 3.46 ERA last year also led the starting staff by a significant margin (Cole Hamels was next at 3.81).
“He kind of lies in the shadows and comes out and deals for us,” Lester said of the understated, sometimes overlooked Hendricks.
Hendricks, who retired all nine batters he faced in the Cactus League game Monday against the Angels, doesn’t have Darvish’s velocity or pure stuff nor Lester’s cutter and five All-Star selections.
But in 5½ years in the big leagues, Hendricks has been remarkably consistent, pitching with command, changing speeds off an 87 mph fastball and earning Game 1 playoff starts and Game 7 World Series starts.
He even has the four-year, $55.5 million contract extension that starts this year.
But Opening Day?
“It would be awesome one day to get it,” said Hendricks, who was so efficient against the Angels that he had to throw more pitches in the bullpen just to reach his target number. “It’s just one of those things to say that you had an Opening Day start. But that’s really all it would mean for me.”
Lester has eight, including four with the Cubs. Darvish has one, with the Rangers.
“Everybody knows it definitely is an honor, and I hope Yu gets it,” Hendricks said. “He pitched so well at the end of last year.”
If Hendricks was overshadowed by Jake Arrieta and Lester when he broke into the majors, he said he doesn’t feel that way anymore.
“And I don’t worry about that,” the 2016 ERA champ said. “The confidence they have in me, [manager David Ross], everybody in this organization — I feel so secure and comfortable here.
“My focus is to do what I need to do for this team and be consistent and be there at the end. Our focus is always at the end of the year, where we’re going to be. Those are the games you want the ball in. Getting off to a hot start’s going to be huge for us. But we have so many guys with unbelievable stuff on this staff that can take that ball whenever.”