Kyle Hendricks takes another step back in rocky four-inning start

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Kyle Hendricks after surrendering a three-run home run to the Cardinals’ Stephen Piscotty on Sunday night at Wrigley Field. (Jon Durr/Getty Images)

In his previous turn in the rotation, Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks had given up more than four runs for the first time in 49 starts. But manager Joe Maddon maintained it was a solid outing for Hendricks, who entered the game Sunday against the Cardinals with a 2.81 ERA in his last seven starts.

‘‘I think he’s very close to what he did last year,’’ Maddon said of the pitcher who led all major-league starters in ERA in 2016.

So much for that, it seems. Hendricks barely made it through four innings against the Cardinals, allowing four earned runs. The big blow was a three-run home run by Stephen Piscotty that was absolutely crushed.

Hendricks was lucky it wasn’t a lot worse. Four of the first five hitters he faced hit balls that were ticketed for extra bases but instead turned into hard-luck outs. Matt Carpenter’s drive to the well in right field in the first would’ve been a sure homer on a less gusty day.

With a 4.09 ERA — nearly double what he posted a season ago — Hendricks clearly isn’t his best self. His velocity has improved a bit in the last month, but the pinpoint control he displayed as a Cy Young contender hasn’t fully returned.

In Heyward’s corner

Former Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler was a high school senior in the Atlanta area when he first met Jason Heyward, then a hotshot freshman. They’ve been friends ever since, a relationship that deepened when they were neighbors in the Cubs’ outfield and frequent companions away from the ballpark last season.

No doubt, Fowler had a front-row view as Heyward sank into a nightmarish offensive rut that lasted pretty much from April through the World Series.

‘‘Obviously, he didn’t have the year he wanted to last year,’’ said Fowler, whose own performance at the plate was arguably the best of his career.

Now the Cardinals’ center fielder, Fowler has kept tabs mostly from afar as Heyward has fared much better in 2017. Even many of Heyward’s outs in the last couple of weeks have been smoked into the far reaches of the outfield.

‘‘I’m happy for him in any aspect when he’s doing well,’’ Fowler said. ‘‘He has bounced back nicely. That’s great to see.’’

Friends to the end

Less than two weeks ago, Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams paid a visit to dear friend Jimmy Piersall and spent the better part of two hours sharing baseball stories and laughs with the former outfielder, White Sox broadcaster and roving instructor with the Cubs.

Piersall’s wife, Jan, called Williams a couple of days after the visit to tell him how special it had been. Piersall died Saturday at 87 after a long illness.

‘‘It was so great,’’ Williams said. ‘‘He was in a wheelchair, but his mind was still fresh. We just had a great time. We always enjoyed talking baseball together so much.’’

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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