Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks could be forgiven for asking manager David Ross to try using an opener on the days he’s scheduled to start.
Hendricks’ first-inning ERA sits at 19.29 through seven starts this season. Against the Pirates on Sunday, he loaded the bases with no outs on the way to giving up three earned runs in the first. The Cubs went on to lose 6-5.
Hendricks didn’t allow many hard-hit balls, especially in the first, when the highest exit velocity was Adam Frazier’s leadoff single at 89.7 mph. The Pirates reached and drove in their runs on bloop singles most of the afternoon.
‘‘A ton of soft contact falling in,’’ Ross said. ‘‘It felt like the ground balls were where we weren’t. Didn’t play our cleanest defense behind him, but a lot of soft contact fell in. Wind blowing in, it’s a tricky positioning thing.’’
In all, the average exit velocity on the nine hits Hendricks allowed was 83.5 mph and four were below 74 mph. The defense didn’t help things, with infield errors in the first and third resulting in two unearned runs.
Hendricks joined Ross in thinking he executed well, even if the outcome didn’t indicate it.
‘‘Definitely frustrating, but you have to somehow not look at the results like that,’’ Hendricks said. ‘‘I have to be immersed in the process right now, just focus on each pitch I’m making, making sure I’m making a good pitch and go from there. . . . My focus was good today, attacking, pitching to contact. Just hopefully it will go my way next time.’’
The loss might have been partially the product of bad luck, but Hendricks has looked far from his usual self this season. His ERA sits at 6.23, in part because he is walking batters at the highest rate of his career and giving up about three times as many home runs per nine innings as he has before.
‘‘I thought he threw the ball fine,’’ Ross said. ‘‘Some soft liners found holes. Felt like wherever we positioned our infielders or our outfielders, they hit it just away from them. I think Kyle threw the ball really nice. Balls were down, off the end, ahead in the count a lot. All those things point to good signs for him.’’
There’s some reason to think things eventually will improve for Hendricks. Going into his start Sunday, opposing hitters had a .318 batting average on balls in play against him. That is the highest of his career and up from .272 in 2020, suggesting that some of the balls that dropped in for hits Sunday are due to start turning into outs going forward.
‘‘It’s still on the right track,’’ Hendricks said. ‘‘I’m still getting better action on my pitches; I’m getting to the bottom of the zone better. Threw some good curveballs, good changeups today, so at least I have a chance going out there. I feel like I can trust my stuff more, so I would say still positive progress, progress in the right direction. Just have to stick with it, keep making good pitches and things will turn around.’’
A three-run ninth inning rallied the Cubs from a 6-2 deficit, but the comeback fell short. Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch leading off, and Kris Bryant drew a walk. Two outs later, an RBI single by Joc Pederson and a two-run double by Ildemaro Vargas made it 6-5. The rally ended, however, when pinch hitter Javy Baez grounded to second to end the game.
Outfielders Jake Marisnick (right hamstring) and Jason Heyward (right hand) left the game early. Ross said both will be evaluated further Monday.