Why Kyle Hendricks could be poised for bigger role in playoff rotation

MILWAUKEE – If these games in Milwaukee this weekend – three consecutive 10-inning bouts and counting – are as close to playoff intensity as the Cubs say they are, then consider Kyle Hendricks ready for October.

And don’t underestimate how important that is for a defending World Series champion that has sprung starting rotation leaks every few days for the past month or so.

Almost lost in the late-inning drama of Saturday’s 4-3 walkoff loss to the Brewers at Miller Park was a six-inning performance by last year’s major-league ERA champ that looked reminiscent of the fall of 2016.

“It feels close,” Hendricks said after a season-high 112-pitch start that got stronger as it got deeper into the game.

He gave up eight hits, but three of them were first-inning singles, when he allowed his only run.

“He wanted to go back out [for the seventh],” manager Joe Maddon said. “He had good stuff right down to the very end. He felt strong, which is good going into his next start.”

More than that, it could be critical going into next month.

When asked about the confidence in his potential playoff rotation compared to a year ago, Maddon on Saturday exhaled audibly before answering: “Woof.”

Maddon described the recent return of Jake Arrieta from a hamstring injury and Jon Lester’s struggles since returning from a lat injury as significant parts of that answer.

Another significant part could be Hendricks’ ascension and increasing strength since he missed seven weeks with a hand injury.

He has a 2.34 ERA in 12 starts since his return, and last year’s Game 7 World Series starter – who beat Clayton Kershaw in the National League pennant clincher – said he’s ready to move as far up in the rotation plans as the team might need.

“Last year I really came into my own, somewhat at least, in the playoffs to pitch those big innings compared to the year before that,” he said. “I know we’ve had a few guys [injured] and have had ups and downs with the rotation. The way I feel right now and with the time I missed, that was the goal I came back with – to be strong at the end here and give the team more innings if they need it.

“And I still feel strong. Hopefully, that can continue all the way through October.’’

Justin case for postseason?

Anybody notice the way struggling newcomer Justin Wilson handled the top of the Brewers’ order in the seventh and eighth innings Saturday?

Leaning hard on a firm fastball with newfound command, the left-hander struck out Eric Sogard, Neil Walker and Travis Shaw in his four-up, four-down performance, suggesting he has unlocked the answer to his control problems in the weeks after being acquired in July from the Tigers.

“How good was that?” Maddon said. “That’s really something looking forward. If we get that out of him that could be a huge difference maker for us.”

Said Wilson: “I’ve been working just to get back to right, and clearly it hasn’t been that way. It’s a game of adjustments.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

 

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