With Cubs facing 0-2 NLCS deficit, Maddon goes with youngster instead of Hammel, who may start Game 4
By Adam McCalvy and Carrie Muskat
CHICAGO -- By every measure, this is the biggest moment in the budding career of Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks, a 25-year-old, former eighth-round Draft pick from Dartmouth with a swing-and-miss changeup and all of 45 regular-season starts on his resume. He will start Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday at Wrigley Field (airing on TBS at 7:30 p.m. ET; game time scheduled for 8), with Chicago facing an 0-2 deficit in the best-of-seven series.
Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta have each taken the mound in the series, and each tasted defeat. So the Cubs' hopes of climbing back into the NLCS ride a right arm little known outside of Chicago's North Side.
"These are the starts you want," Hendricks said. "It's a big opportunity for me, but I've got to remain calm -- keep the ball down and make good pitches. It's the same game."
It's just a bigger game, bigger even than his Game 2 start in the NL Division Series against the Cardinals. With the Cubs trailing in that series, too, Hendricks surrendered three solo home runs that night in 4 2/3 innings and took a no-decision in a team victory, calling the exercise "a big learning experience," especially in managing the emotions of his postseason debut.
The opposing pitcher on Tuesday is an All-Star with a power fastball, Jacob deGrom, who will seek to follow the form of previous Mets starters Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard. Asked how the Cubs could overcome this on-paper disadvantage, catcher Miguel Montero suggested, "probably swing the bat a little better."
"Give [the Mets] a lot of credit -- I really don't like to give credit to pitchers, but they deserve it," Montero said. "They have great arms. If those guys stay healthy, they'll be a pretty good rotation for the Mets for a long time. We've got to swing the bat, we have to score some runs. We haven't scored enough runs to beat anybody."
In spite of his relative inexperience, Hendricks has some factors working in his favor:
• He possessed baseball's highest swing rate of any right-handed changeup at 62.1 percent, and the sixth-highest swing and miss rate of any pitcher on that pitch, at 40.8 percent. It's a heady list, with Hendricks trailing the likes of Cole Hamels, Francisco Liriano, Carlos Martinez, Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale in swings and misses at changeups.
• The Mets batted .207 against right-handed changeups during the regular season, third-worst in the Major Leagues. Their .374 slugging percentage against right-handed changeups ranked 18th out of 30 teams.
• Hendricks has been featuring that pitch with more frequency. His two highest changeup-usage months were the final two months of the regular season.
The pitch could come in handy against the Mets' hottest hitter. Daniel Murphy has homered in four consecutive postseason games, including connecting against Lester's cutter in Game 1 of the NLCS and Arrieta's curveball in Game 2. Murphy's regular-season slugging percentage against right-handed changeups fell short of .300.
Do Murphy's regular season results matter now? Hendricks suggested they might not.
"Sometimes the best thing to do is pick your spots," he said of facing Murphy. "See when guys are on base, when they're not, when you can pitch around him. Regardless, when he comes up, you've definitely got to be careful."
Hendricks pitched consecutive scoreless, six-inning starts to end his regular season, allowing only three hits and two walks combined in those games with 17 strikeouts. He finished the year 8-7 with a 3.95 ERA in 32 starts and 180 regular-season innings.
"He's definitely a student," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who tabbed Hendricks over a more experienced right-hander with similar regular-season statistics, Jason Hammel. "He really dissects everything, so he knows exactly what he wants to do, and it's up to execution. ... I think the hitters, when he's on, don't get a real good look at him. He elicits a lot of weak contact, and when the other pitches are on, that's when the strikeouts show up.
"He needs to get strikes. He needs to be able to get called strikes from an umpire. He's not going to get a lot of swing and misses early in the count, so he needs, I don't want to say 'cooperation,' he just needs to be on those edges to the point where he gets called strikes. Then after that, the stuff plays bigger because of the deception involved.
"Definitely knows what he's doing out there. Great kid, man. He's going to keep getting better, also. Not a flamethrower, but when it comes to moving, it's well above average."
Hendricks hopes to have that movement working Tuesday, on his biggest stage.
"Yeah, there's pressure," he said. "It's the playoffs. There's always going to be some pressure, but you've got to let the pleasure exceed that. We've heard Joe say it a lot.
"I'm just going to go out and try to have fun. This is why you play the game. This is why you want the ball."