Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks is missing his ‘best friends’ from recent years but soldiering on

Hendricks carried around an “emptiness” for a while, and it’s not hard to draw lines from that to his 2021 performance.

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Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates

Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks looks on during a start in Pittsburgh this season.

Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Does Kyle Hendricks miss the way things used to be with the Cubs?

Does he ever get sad thinking about all those good teams and great teammates far — and forever — gone?

Cue an image of “The Professor” crying in a $12 Wrigley Field beer.

“Yeah,” he said. “I get sad sometimes. But I think it’s natural.”

Hendricks has had a lot of time to think since last season’s trade deadline, when he — like Cubs fans everywhere — was left numb by the sudden, if expected, departures of Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Kris Bryant, among others. And don’t let the right-hander’s expressionless demeanor on the mound fool you; his emotions about the whole thing have run the gamut.

“At first,” he said, “there was some emptiness. It was there immediately, but it took some time to set in fully. It was just such a shock, just ripping the bandaid right off and all of it happening in 24 hours.”

Hendricks carried it around for a while, and it’s not hard to draw lines from that to his 2021 performance. In May, June and July, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball — right up there with his 2016 self — going 12-1 with a 2.89 ERA over 17 starts, 14 of them quality starts. After the deadline purge, though, came the worst two-month statistical stretch of his career.

Coincidence? You decide.

Better yet, let your old pal Dr. Know-It-All decide: No chance it was a coincidence. With all that air let out of the Cubs’ balloon, the last two months of the season was a funeral procession. Have you ever tried locating a changeup during a funeral procession?

“At the time,” he said, “you wanted to keep playing with them forever.”

Ten months later, Hendricks, 32, is able to easily discuss the shifts that have occurred in the National League Central over his nearly eight years in the big leagues. Early on, the Cardinals had all the juice. Then the Cubs took over. The Brewers rose up and became a worthy challenger before surpassing the Cubs.

Now, with a homestand against those division rivals, things are starkly different. The Brewers are in charge. The Cardinals are their only challenger. Hendricks — who’s under contract through the 2023 season, with a $16 million club option for 2024 — sees the changing tides as being “good for baseball.”

“Being around more and more shows me how lucky we were to have those good times, you know?” he said. “For me to show up and, really, [the winning] to come a year later — to happen so fast — it makes me feel so lucky. I mean, it’s amazing. To get to have that success and win with those guys, it was just such an exciting time and so much fun.

“It’s good to at least look back and have those memories, right? None of it could have happened. Imagine if it didn’t happen. But it did happen. I was really lucky for a large part of my career to be winning and be at the top.”

Seeing Hendricks in a clubhouse full of relative strangers today takes one back to when he arrived on the scene in 2014. Remember his first start? Some of you might. It was July 10, 2014, in Cincinnati, and not long after Hendricks’ work was done, he was charging out of the dugout with his new teammates because — what the heck? — Rizzo had thrown down his first baseman’s glove and challenged the Reds to get down.

“I was like, ‘Really? Is that typical up here?’ ” Hendricks said.

There isn’t one of us — let’s be honest — who ever would have envisioned the stoic, soft-tossing Hendricks going on to make three Opening Day and 11 postseason starts, to dominate a pennant clincher at Wrigley Field, to come through in Game 7 of the World Series.

No, he hasn’t blown up into a superstar since 2016. So what? Just look at him. He’s still more than meets the eye.

And once in a while, he still gets to live in the past. Like when he catches up with Jon Lester, which never fails to make him laugh.

“He actually has friends,” Hendricks said when asked if Lester has disappeared into the wilderness and grown a giant beard in retirement. “But he has no idea what to do before 5 o’clock.”

Yes, Hendricks misses what was. But that’s over and done with. He’s OK with what is.

“I went to high school and played with some best friends for three, four years,” he said. “I went to college and played with some best friends for three, four years.

“Here, I played with some best friends for seven years, eight years, you know? That’s a long, long time in the game of baseball. To be able to have that? I think I’ll feel lucky for the rest of my life.”

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