PITTSBURGH – For the first time in 2022, a Cubs starting pitcher faltered and had a short outing. But because of the stellar work the rotation did the first time through to begin the season, the team is in a good spot.
Kyle Hendricks made his second start of the season, facing the Pirates. This time, he did not fare as well as in his solid Opening Day start, as he allowed six runs in 3 2/3 innings and retired only 11 of the 21 batters he faced to set the tone in a 6-2 loss Wednesday at PNC Park.
Hendricks said he knew from the first pitch that he was a bit out of sync. He felt like he was rushing his pitches and not staying on the rubber long enough, causing him to elevate his fastball — which, for a pitcher who averaged 86.2 mph on his four-seamer on Wednesday, is not a recipe for success.
“Fastball command is the key for me, and this start, I didn’t have it,” Hendricks said. “I tried to force it. There were spots, maybe around the second, where I got a few and then got back out of it.”
When the fastball isn’t clicking, it puts Hendricks’ offspeed arsenal in a vulnerable position. After walking Yoshi Tsutsugo on four changeups in the first, Hendricks tried the offering on an 0-1 pitch to Ben Gamel. Lack of fastball command may have allowed Gamel to sit changeup anyway, but the pitch drifted over the middle, and Gamel sent it to the right-field stands for a three-run homer.
“It was down at least, but it’s working into him,” Hendricks said of the changeup to Gamel. “It wasn’t starting on the outside part of the plate and fading off, so that’s right into his barrel, right into his bat path.”
It was an about-face from Hendricks’ 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball in a 5-4 win over the Brewers on Opening Day last Thursday, which set in motion a string of stellar outings for the Cubs’ rotation over the first four games. All four starters went at least five innings and kept opponents to one run or fewer, allowing the team to build up a 3-1 record.
“It speaks to how they prepared in the offseason,” said manager David Ross, who handed managerial duties over to bench coach Andy Green in the second inning because he felt under the weather. “Because I don’t think without putting the work in in the offseason and being able to come into spring and be able to get innings up as fast as they’ve been able to, they would be able to do that.”
“I was just thinking about that last night,” Cubs reliever Ethan Roberts, who notched his first MLB strikeout Tuesday, said Wednesday morning. “That’s huge, especially because relievers are [able to throw] one, maybe two innings right now. Those starters to go five is massive for us. Our bullpen is completely fresh, which is awesome. It’s not that way across the league right now.”
Even after Hendricks’ shaky start, the Cubs — whose next off-day is on April 25 — are in a great spot headed into a four-game set in Colorado. Michael Rucker, whom Green said hadn’t thrown in eight or nine days prior to his entry in the fourth inning Wednesday, threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings on just 28 pitches to carry the bulk of the relief weight.
“It was sensational,” Green said. “Those are all really encouraging signs, to see young guys that can have long layoffs not make excuses to step on the mound and get big outs. And next time, they’ll find themselves in a bigger situation, because [they do] things like that.”
But the Cubs need Hendricks to figure it out to keep the rotation’s early success rolling. The 32-year-old right-hander is coming off a 2021 season in which he posted a career-worst 4.77 ERA despite his 14-7 record. With his wealth of experience and track record of success up until recently, it’s hard to doubt he’ll find that rhythm that has propelled him all these years. But he’ll have to take that step.
“At least we know what it is and I know the feeling I’ve got to get to,” Hendricks said, “so I’ve just got to get in some work this week.”