Kyle Hendricks finally looked more like the ace the Chicago Cubs need to set the tone for the rest of the rotation.
For a starting pitching staff that hasn’t produced much positive momentum this season, Hendricks’ form during Tuesday’s 7-1 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of a split doubleheader showed signs of what has made the right-hander successful. And in the process, the Cubs gained a different dynamic. Their starters haven’t produced enough quality starts. Hendricks’ seven-inning complete game represented the most innings pitched by a Cubs starter in 30 games.
Too often the rotation hasn’t been competitive, forcing manager David Ross to rely on his bullpen for bulk innings. Hendricks going the distance in the shortened doubleheader game was a welcome reprieve.
“Kyle looked a lot more like himself from the jump,” Ross said. “I liked the angle of the fastball, and stuff was down in the zone. ... I still think he was kind of settling in early on to find his command, but it was pretty darn good throughout the game.
“He was throwing a lot of strikes, a lot of first-pitch strikes, which is characteristic of the guy I know when he’s locked in.”
Hendricks’ command issues through his first five starts spurred a 7.54 ERA and league-high 10 home runs, but he took a step in the right direction Tuesday. He scattered seven hits, walked one and struck out six. The lone run came on Keibert Ruiz’s one-out pinch-hit homer in the seventh — the Dodgers’ only extra-base hit off Hendricks.
The Cubs offense gave Hendricks a cushion to work with after a four-run first inning against Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw. Hendricks felt he did a much better job with his intent pitch to pitch, and he credited catcher Willson Contreras for locking him in.
“The boys going out and putting up four runs early was huge to help me do that,” Hendricks said. “It gave me confidence to go attack, which I’ve been trying to do better, better first-pitch strikes, attacking the strike zone — just overall made a lot more good pitches.”
Before Tuesday’s start, part of Hendricks’ struggles stemmed from consistently missing bats. Hitters made too much contact in the zone, and when they did connect, they barreled the ball for damage. Harnessing better fastball command is key for any pitcher and especially for Hendricks, who at his best uses his fastball so well around the zone, which helps play up his secondary pitches.
Hendricks has worked to simplify and get back to reliably locating at the bottom of the zone. He explained the process includes getting better timing out of his glove and keeping his hand moving. Contreras told him he looked more like himself pitch to pitch.
Given the struggles he endured in April, Hendricks is taking the positives out of Tuesday’s performance and looking to replicate it the next time out.