Before the sun had time to set Sunday, Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks had given up four home runs in the first inning, more than he had allowed in a game in his career.
The Braves’ offense eventually forced Cubs manager David Ross to go to his bullpen after four innings on the way to a 13-4 loss.
Making his first start since being scratched Tuesday against the Brewers because of COVID-19 precautions, Hendricks looked uncharacteristically wild and hittable. He needed 74 pitches to get through four innings. This is the same Hendricks who required only 81 pitches to toss a complete-game shutout against the Cardinals on May 3, 2019.
‘‘It was just not very good overall from the start,’’ Hendricks said. ‘‘Not aggressive, falling behind guys, and then just everything was flat.’’
Things looked shaky for Hendricks from the start. On two of the four first-inning homers, he was up to a three-ball count. He also walked Marcell Ozuna and hit Austin Riley in the inning. The hit batsman set up Guillermo Heredia’s two-run shot to center field that capped the inning.
It was the third start of the season for Hendricks, who lasted only three innings against the Pirates in the season opener. He followed that up with a six-inning no-decision against the Brewers on April 7.
In Hendricks’ last inning Sunday, he gave up back-to-back walks to Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman to open the fourth. Acuna eventually scored on a sacrifice fly for Hendricks’ seventh earned run.
The 10 baserunners Hendricks allowed were the most for him since he gave up 10 hits to the Reds on Aug. 28, 2020, in Cincinnati. On that day, however, he didn’t walk anyone.
‘‘He looked like he wasn’t executing,’’ Ross said. ‘‘The ball looked up. His misses were more [at the] belt line than normal. He looked out of sync that first inning.’’
Ross said it appeared Hendricks’ pitches were running to the middle more and lacked some of their usual bite. He also said some of that might have been the product of Hendricks’ short layoff.
Hendricks said he missed only one side session while waiting to get clearance to pitch again and had thrown off the mound Friday in preparation for this start. Rusty or not, he could tell something wasn’t right from the get-go. He said that it felt as though his pitches were flat and that he was leaving them up and in the middle of the strike zone.
‘‘It’s like any other adverse situation,’’ Hendricks said. ‘‘You just try and learn from it and feel what’s going on. I just made a lot of bad pitches there, a lot of flat pitches right over the middle of the plate.’’
The Cubs’ bullpen didn’t help things. Alec Mills lasted just more than an inning and combined with Ryan Tepera to load the bases with no outs in the sixth. That led to the Braves’ second six-run inning of the night, one that featured Heredia’s second homer of the game and his first career grand slam. The Cubs hadn’t given up two six-run innings in a game since 2014.
Anthony Rizzo clubbed solo homers in the first and third innings for the Cubs, and the rest of the offense showed a few more signs of life. The Cubs reached at least 10 hits for the second consecutive game, and slow-starting Joc Pederson went 2-for-3 with a triple.
But even with a respectable showing from the bats, Hendricks’ first-inning struggles and the Cubs’ shoddy relief pitching proved too much for them to overcome.
‘‘When [Hendricks] takes the mound, you feel like you’re going to be able to settle in and let the game come to you,’’ Ross said. ‘‘But it just wasn’t his night tonight. Couldn’t find it. We trust Kyle and have a lot of confidence in Kyle when he takes the mound, for sure.’’