I wonder if Kyle Hendricks understands how desperately the Cubs need him. You’d think the weeping, the gnashing of teeth and the telephone-stalking would be a clue, but who knows?
It’s possible he views the team’s prostrations with a smirk. Remember, despite having the lowest ERA in baseball last season, he watched manager Joe Maddon walk to the mound and pull him after 4„ scoreless innings of Game 3 of the World Series. A scoreless tie eventually became a 1-0 Indians victory.
You couldn’t blame him if he had two simple questions: Me? The Savior?
Yes and yes, apparently.
This is where the Cubs find themselves, searching for someone or something to turn around a shockingly average season. Their last game before the All-Star break featured Jon Lester’s inability to get out of a 10-run first inning, a fitting close to a 43-45 unofficial first half to the year.
Hendricks has missed the last five weeks with tendinitis in his hand. The Cubs are hopeful he’ll be ready for their three-game series in Baltimore this weekend. He pitched well in a minor-league rehab start Monday. All he needs now is some water to walk on.
But this wouldn’t be the 2017 Cubs without potential issues. It isn’t as if Hendricks has lit it up this season. He owns a 4.09 ERA, miles away from the 2.13 ERA he had last season. That means he was fitting in with every other underachiever on the roster before his hand brought him to his knees.
Was the injury the reason for his relative ineffectiveness? Or was he simply going through what the Cubs have been going through for three-plus months? You know which answer is in club president Theo Epstein’s prayers. There’s no question Hendricks’ four-seam fastball was down about two or three mph from normal (89) well before he was put on the disabled list in early June.
When he’s pitching well, it really is something to behold. When he’s right, he throws four pitches — a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball/sinker, a curveball and a changeup. But he’s more than that. A Hendricks in full is a Hendricks who can move his fastball in and out, who can change speeds, who can leave frustrated hitters questioning whether life is worth living. All this from a guy whose fastball is more schematic diagram than blur.
That’s the pitcher the Cubs, trailing the first-place Brewers by 5½ games, need so badly. They really are looking for someone to lead them, preferably several someones. But they’ll start with Hendricks, the Dartmouth grad known as the Professor. A professorial spark? In baseball? Has anything else worked so far?
Lester had a rough first half after finishing second in National League Cy Young voting last season. Wondering if age is starting to catch up with the 33-year-old is natural. Age looks like it has caught, roped and tied John Lackey, who’s 38. Jake Arrieta looks all over the place, both in the location of his pitches and in his 8-7 record.
There’s more second-half hope being invested in Hendricks than the others, probably because an injury might explain his troubles. The inflammation he experienced stretched from the back of his right hand to his middle finger. If that sounds like a tricky area for a pitcher, it’s probably because it is.
If you’re looking for patterned comfort in Hendricks’ career, Cubs fans, maybe you shouldn’t. His progression from his rookie season looks like a choppy bar graph: a 7-2 record and a 2.46 ERA in 2014; 8-7, 3.95 in 2015; 16-8, 2.13 in 2016; and 4-3, 4.09 so far in 2017.
“He made some really big adjustments for himself last year that obviously worked,’’ Lester said of Hendricks in spring training. “Now it’s a matter of, is the league going to adjust to him with them seeing him a couple of times? He’s a smart kid. He knows. He makes really good in-game adjustments. I see sky’s the limit.’’
The smart kid, the sky’s-the-limit guy — that’s the pitcher the Cubs need pronto if they want to begin to turn this season around. It’s not fair to put that much pressure on one person. You can go down the Cubs’ roster and find lots of players who should be performing better than they are. Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant come immediately to mind.
When you’re looking for someone to come to the rescue, the tendency is to not look at the unremarkable person in the cubicle next to you. You look for someone to come out of nowhere, or at least from the DL.
In this case, it’s a professor wearing a cape. Let’s see if that flies. Nothing else has.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.