Talk about unpredictable: Hendricks falters, but Cubs pick him up

WASHINGTON — There was a Twitter poll that made the rounds Thursday, leading into Game 5 of the division series between the Cubs and Nationals, and it blew up in the face of the smart-alecky media nudnik who created it.

“In what inning,” he wrote — OK, fine, I wrote — “will Joe Maddon prematurely lift Kyle Hendricks tonight?”

The choices were the sixth, the fifth and even earlier than that, and by the time about 1,300 people had responded, 43 percent were foreseeing an extra-early hook from Maddon.

But don’t blame them. I’m the one who offered up a faulty premise. I didn’t ask if Maddon would pull Hendricks too soon — as he infamously did in Game 7 of last year’s World Series — but rather when he would do it.

In hindsight, imagine the nerve of assuming anything about Game 5 between the Cubs and Nats, which unraveled into an event so strange and unpredictable, baseball analysts and historians — maybe Talmudic scholars, too — will ruminate on it for a long time.

As it turned out, Maddon did pull Hendricks before the fifth inning. Yet he stayed with the struggling right-hander quite a bit longer than a lot of managers would have. He stayed with him even after Michael Taylor’s three-run home run in the second inning put the Cubs in a 4-1 hole. I don’t know about you, but that’s when I figured Hendricks’ night was over.

It’s almost like Maddon wasn’t pulling our legs at all before the game when he said: “I think you’ve got to give Kyle a little more leeway tonight based on the cachet that he’s built.”

Give Maddon credit for sticking with his guy for four innings — which doesn’t sound like much, but in this stupendously drunk game was a vital stretch — and give Hendricks a tip of the cap for surviving that long.

He didn’t look like the guy who outdueled the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS clincher last October. He didn’t look like the guy who would’ve won Game 7 against the Indians if only his manager had let him. He looked like a skinny pitcher who, without a great many natural gifts, was merely trying to hold things together.

But let’s not forget how extraordinary the results have been during Hendricks’ time in the big leagues, all with the Cubs. His career regular-season ERA of 2.94 is second among active pitchers with at least 75 starts, behind only Kershaw’s.  He came into Game 5 with a 1.98 ERA in eight postseason starts.

And throughout the last two-plus months of this season, he repeatedly picked up his team. When Jon Lester was struggling or injured, when Jake Arrieta had a rough go with his hamstring, when series popped up here or there and the Cubs just weren’t hitting, Hendricks responded with excellence. There were times it seemed he couldn’t buy one in his own victory column, but Hendricks had a miniscule 2.19 ERA in 13 starts after returning from the disabled list in late July.

In Game 5, everyone in the building picked Hendricks up. His teammates, who pulled together nine runs with much help from the oft-bumbling Nats. The Nats themselves, who made enough mistakes to fill an entire postseason. The great Max Scherzer, who faltered when called upon out of the bullpen. Wade Davis, who took the long road for the best non-World Series save of his career.

“I had nothing tonight, and it didn’t matter,” Hendricks said. “That was incredible.”

They all took Hendricks off the hook on a rare night when he could’ve been the goat.

Quick poll: Who’s OK with that?

Me too.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.