Cubs manager David Ross turned to pitching coach Tommy Hottovy in the dugout and asked him to check in on Kyle Hendricks. The right-hander’s pitch count was around 90.
Hendricks must have sensed Ross’ eyes because before Hottovy could make his way to the other end of the dugout, Hendricks turned around and gave the skipper the thumbs up. He wanted to go back in.
In the Cubs’ 1-0 win against the Twins on Friday, Hendricks threw eight shutout innings and struck out a season-high 10 batters. It was his best start since a complete game shutout on Opening Day.
“I’ve been trying to get back to really locking in on the glove and fastball command because about four starts ago it was not good,” Hendricks said. "It’s been getting better and better each start.”
On Aug. 28, Hendricks threw a five-run, six-inning dud. In his four starts since, including Friday, Hendricks has allowed just four runs combined. He appears to be building to peak performance at exactly the right time, less than two weeks before the postseason.
“We’re going to rely on Kyle, I don’t think there’s any secret about that,” Ross said. “He’s one of our horses, man. This guy is as good as it gets for me. It’s fun to be his manager, fun to watch him take the ball every day and look out there and know that you can let him have the night.”
The way Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras saw it, the key to Hendricks’ success on Friday was establishing his fastball early. A clear but blustery evening at Wrigley Field worked in his favor on that front.
“When the wind’s blowing in like that, it just gives you more ability to … really attack, really get aggressive,” Hendricks said.
He threw mostly fastballs in the first inning, but he also tested his curveball. Hendricks knew heading into the game that there would be “a lot of curveball opportunities,” as he put it. Entering play, the Twins had a below average slugging percentage against curveballs (.340), compared to the rest of the league.
“When you have a third pitch, you are able to put that in the batter’s head,” Contreras said. “That makes Hendricks more difficult to read, especially when you have a power lineup like the Twins.”
He and Hendricks noticed the Twins hunting for the changeup early on, so they relied on the fastball to get ahead in the count and the curveball or changeup to put them away.
Hendricks usually throws more changeups than curveballs on a given night, but on Friday those proportions were flipped.
“When you have a pitcher that can get ahead in the count real quick like Hendricks, and then he can execute with two strikes,” Contreras said, and then chuckled, “you have nowhere to go but to the bench.”