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Hendricks an ace? Cubdom might not see him that way, but he does

HOUSTON — Jake Arrieta will take the mound here Sunday, and Cubdom will be watching for signs of that inimitable late-2015, early-2016 dominance. Maybe it’ll be there, or maybe it’s still somewhere around the bend. Heck, maybe we’ll never see it again.

Regardless, Arrieta will remain prominent in everyone’s mind as the topic of who should start Game 1 of the playoffs festers.

So will, of course, Jon Lester, who for eight starts running has been locked into his best stretch as a Cub. Who’s the real ace? Is it the intimidating Arrieta or is it the stoic lefty who shut the Astros down Friday night with seven more scoreless innings?

It’s got to be Body By Jake or the rugged Lester, right?

Kyle Hendricks leads all of baseball in ERA and has allowed three or fewer runs in an MLB season-high 19 consecutive starts.

Because it darn sure isn’t soft-throwing nice guy Kyle Hendricks.

All Hendricks has done so far this season is lead the big leagues with a 2.07 ERA and put together an active streak of 19 consecutive starts with three or fewer runs allowed. And we’re supposed to be impressed?

Um, yeah, we are.

Let’s be real honest: Hendricks’ performance throughout his 14-win campaign holds up against anyone in baseball’s. Based on his numbers, he makes nothing but sense as a playoff No. 1.

On a team with Arrieta and Lester, maybe it’s just plain impossible for that to happen. But don’t think for a second Hendricks doesn’t see himself thriving in such a scenario.

“One hundred percent, I do,” he said. “I definitely have confidence in myself and I know the team does, too.”

It has been quite an eventful year for Hendricks since his pair of no-decisions in the 2015 playoffs, when he mostly held his own — “I could’ve been better,” he said — but didn’t make it five innings in either start. What has changed? Well, let’s see, he has gotten sucked into the wormhole of outer space, reading a ton on the vast subject. He became hooked on the Netflix sci-fi creepfest “Stranger Things”.

Oh, and he became a completely different pitcher. Overhauled mechanics allowed him to add a curveball and a four-seam fastball to the changeup and two-seamer he previously could rely on, bolstering the Dartmouth graduate’s formidable mental approach.

“I feel a lot stronger at this point in the year than I did last year, by far,” he said. “I’m at a different place in my career now. I feel ready for whatever comes.”

That includes the barbs slung his way by Arrieta, Lester and especially John Lackey when the starting pitchers hang out away from the ballpark. The trio of tall, strapping alphas give him good-natured grief for being young, for being smart — in a sense, for daring to be one of them.

Yet Hendricks has become one of them, even if Cubdom doesn’t see him as being quite as big-game-ready.

“There’s not a lot of flash with Kyle,” said Arrieta, “but I’m telling you this — he is everything you’d want in a starting pitcher. Anybody would be lucky to have a guy like Kyle Hendricks, that’s for sure.”

For the most part, Hendricks doesn’t mind living in the shadows of his bigger-name rotation mates. They have louder voices, stronger arms and longer numbers on their paychecks.

“I’m probably more comfortable deferring to them,” Hendricks said.

By that he means off the field, not on it. The Hendricks of 2016 craves the postseason spotlight as much as they do. Game 1 or not, home or road, he’s certain he’ll be ready.

“I’ll be fine with it,” he said, “as long as they’re giving me the ball.”

This is a pitcher who has grown. Cubdom ought not take him for granted.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com