Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks tries to put 2021 behind him, but loss to Pirates reminiscent of struggles

The right-hander allowed six runs in 3 2⁄3 innings against Pittsburgh.

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Right-hander Kyle Hendricks gave up a three-run home run in the first inning of the Cubs’ loss to the Pirates.

Right-hander Kyle Hendricks gave up a three-run home run in the first inning of the Cubs’ loss to the Pirates.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

PITTSBURGH — The first fastball Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks threw Wednesday floated over the middle of the plate. No harm. Pirates leadoff man Daniel Vogelbach watched it for a strike. But it was a harbinger.

Hendricks’ start mirrored outings in 2021, when he got away from establishing his fastball low in the strike zone and put together the worst season of his career. In the Cubs’ 6-2 loss, Hendricks allowed six runs before leaving with two outs in the fourth inning. He walked four batters.

“Very similar, I would say, to what I was doing last year and the bad parts of spring.” Hendricks said. “When it’s good, I just give myself more time over the rubber. I was doing it out of the stretch especially, just pulling off, being way too quick.”

The data on Hendricks’ secondary pitches has been better this year. He has added vertical movement to his curveball. Catcher Willson Contreras called Hendricks’ changeup “completely different” from last season. But those improvements only give him an advantage — resulting in performances such as Hendricks’ 5⅓ innings of one-run ball on Opening Day — when he’s establishing his fastball down in the zone.

If the Cubs’ rotation is going to sustain the kind of success it had the first time through — each starter threw at least five innings and allowed one run or fewer — the aggressive approach the team has been emphasizing has to start with Hendricks.

That’s why he was so bullish in the spring, regardless of results, about executing his fastball down and away.

Against the Pirates, Hendricks said he felt “out of sync from the start.” And when Hendricks’ fastball isn’t effective, his other pitches lose their impact.

“During the game, we’re trying to get him back on track,” Contreras said.

“But sometimes the feeling’s not there. And you’ve just got to battle with what you have. And that’s what we did today.”

Even the changeup Pirates No. 5 hitter Ben Gamel hit for a three-run home run in the first inning was a product of Hendricks’ timing issues. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Gamel golfed a changeup into the right-field stands to give the Pirates a 3-1 lead.

“That was another one; it was pulled over the plate,” Hendricks said. “It was down at least, but it’s working into him. It wasn’t starting on the outside of the plate and fading off. That’s right into his barrel, into his bat path.

‘‘So, again, that was just way too rotational. Nothing was on the right line working off it.”

The next time Gamel stepped up to the plate, Hendricks threw him all fastballs. Gamel walked on five pitches.

“At least we know what it is, and I know the feeling I’ve got to get to,” Hendricks said. “So I’ve just got to put in some good work this week.”

Hendricks notoriously takes time to get in rhythm. Even in 2016, when he had the best ERA (2.13) in the majors, he had a 3.91 ERA in April.

If Hendricks bounces back in his next start, this outing will go down as an early-season blip.

His first outing already was an improvement over last year’s Opening Day start in which he was out of the game after three innings. The problem last year was that the same mechanical issue kept coming back.

“Just getting that right focus again,” Hendricks said of his work before his next start.

“Simplifying, getting the fastball back to the bottom of the zone, not trying to do too much.”

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