Cubs rotation holding firm, but challenges are mounting

Kyle Hendricks made a quality start on Tuesday, but the Cubs lost 5-3 to the White Sox.

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Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks pitches in the first inning against the White Sox at Wrigley Field on Tuesday.

Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks pitches in the first inning against the White Sox at Wrigley Field on Tuesday.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

It wasn’t as if Kyle Hendricks was giving up rockets in the first couple of innings Tuesday. But he wasn’t satisfied with just well-executed pitches. He wanted to refine his plan against the White Sox.

“I was just getting to be a little predictable,” he said.

Hendricks adjusted and held the Sox scoreless for the rest of his outing, but the Cubs still lost 5-3.

The margin for error keeps getting slimmer as the season winds down. Offense will come and go, but during the stretch run, the Cubs are going to need to rely on their starting pitching. Hendricks put together another quality start, settling in to hold the Sox to three runs in six innings. But the Cubs’ offense couldn’t take advantage of a South Side pitching staff that was decimated at the trade deadline.

The Cubs’ rotation has been a strength for most of the season, despite individual pitchers’ ups and downs. They’ve been able to weather several of their starting pitchers’ rough patches because others have carried the rotation as they worked out of their slumps.

When Jameson Taillon got off to a rocky start in his first season with the Cubs, Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman were pitching at an All-Star level. Hayden Wesneski had his ups and downs early on, but Drew Smyly was as consistent as anyone for the first two months.

As Smyly’s results started to waiver, Hendricks returned from the injured list, transitioning in smoothly after being sidelined for 11 months.

Just as Stroman’s mechanics fell out of sync, an issue likely affected by a nagging injury, Taillon’s behind-the-scenes work translated into a string of strong starts last month.

The challenges for the rotation are mounting. Stroman landed on the 15-day IL with a hip injury a couple of weeks ago, but he felt discomfort around his right ribs Sunday, delaying his return. Smyly temporarily moved to the bullpen while trying to recapture his early success.

Those concerns would have been more glaring if it weren’t for the offense’s recent hot streak and Javier Assad’s emergence in Stroman’s absence. But the Cubs’ 11-4 loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday was eye-opening.

“We have a chance to make some noise, and it kind of starts and ends with the starting pitching,” Taillon said Sunday after allowing eight runs in three innings. “You see a game like today where the starting pitching is not very good, it’s hard to come back and claw back from. And then you see when we can just keep our team in games what our offense is capable of. So, I feel like our starting pitching is going to set the tone.”

The most obvious way for them to do so is to get Stroman back healthy and have Smyly or Assad claim the fifth rotation spot with authority.

The good news for the Cubs is that their rotation still has untapped potential. They’ve come this far lifting each other up, but imagine if all their starters were in rhythm all at once. It would be the team equivalent of a midgame adjustment that turns a solid approach into a dominant one.

On Tuesday, Hendricks didn’t want to take back many pitches in the first two innings. Other than Elvis Andrus’ two-run single, most of what he gave up was soft contact — a fielder’s choice here, a bunt there.

“I’m executing a lot of pitches,” he said. “Just got to trust my eyes a little bit better with what I’m seeing and make those adjustments maybe a little quicker.”

Throw a few more inside strikes. Mix in the curveball a little more.

Once Hendricks adjusted, he held the Sox scoreless for the next four innings.

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