PITTSBURGH — The last time Kyle Hendricks pitched in this ballpark, he threw six scoreless innings to drop his season ERA to 1.99 with one start left last September.
By the time he returned to the PNC Park mound on Tuesday on a drizzly night along the north bank of the Allegheny River, last year’s ERA title was a memory as distant and murky as the river bottom.
But maybe there’s something in the Pittsburgh rain, something in the air. Because Hendricks rebounded from the worst three-game start of his career to rediscover enough of his 2016 self to beat Pirates ace Gerrit Cole 1-0 with another scoreless six.
He didn’t outpitch Cole, who allowed only one base hit out of the infield and didn’t walk a batter in seven dominant innings.
But Hendricks certainly outperformed the Pirates hitters, his lagging velocity showing a slight uptick and allowing him to make more effective use of his changeup.
“He looked much more like he did last year,” said manager Joe Maddon, whose Cubs won for the sixth time in seven games.
Just don’t go proclaiming that the majors’ reigning ERA champ is back, Hendricks said.
“It’s just one start,” he said. “It’s not a ‘back’ thing. It’s not in the zone, dialed in like I was at the end of last year, that’s for sure. That was a completely different feeling and sensation. But it felt a lot better, it’s a lot more on track, and I’m making a lot better pitches.”
The way the hard-throwing Cole looked a night after the Cubs routed the Pirates 14-3, it seemed the Cubs might have to wait until Wednesday for a chance at their next win.
But after Cole had struck out, in order, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist, shortstop Addison Russell delivered the hardest hit ball of the night off Cole — a drive to the top of the wall in right-center that missed clearing the wall by maybe a foot.
When Pirates second baseman Alen Hansen threw Jason Heyward’s ensuing ground ball past first base for an error, Russell scored the only run of the game.
“Cole could not have pitched better,” Maddon said of the right-hander, who struck out eight. “I know he’s good. I have not seen him that good.”
Hendricks, whose fastball had hovered in the low 80s his previous two starts, had a fastball in the mid-80s Tuesday that touched 87 or 88 mph, depending on the reading.
By the third inning, he said, he began to find a command and rhythm that helped him retire 11 of the final 13 batters he faced, including two strikeouts in his final inning.
“We’ll take it,” Hendricks said. “One step.”
A rebounding Hendricks could be huge for a Cubs team that has stutter-stepped through the first three weeks of the season, mostly because of up-and-down starting pitching.
After six straight games without a quality start, they now have two in a row (Brett Anderson on Monday) with Jon Lester on the mound for Wednesday’s series finale.
Given the Cubs’ early surge in scoring (an 8.8-run average in the previous six games), the significance of a more consistent performance from the rotation is not lost on Hendricks.
“That’s when the whole team just gets going, rolling on track,” he said. “The win streaks that we can put together — we saw it last year.”
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