'Unflappable' right-hander to be followed in rotation by Lester, Quintana, Arrieta
By Carrie Muskat
CHICAGO -- Kyle Hendricks, the Game 7 starter in the World Series last year, will open the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile tonight when the Cubs right-hander takes the mound in Game 1 against the Nationals. He has the perfect temperament for the job.
Hendricks was tabbed to start the best-of-five series opener at Nationals Park ahead of the Cubs' Opening Day starter, Jon Lester, who will start Game 2.
"I remember back in the day when the torch was passed to me to do that," Lester said. "It's a cool thing for [Hendricks]. I'm excited for him. I'm sure he's excited to go out there on Friday and get on that stage again."
Hendricks will oppose Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg. Despite facing an imposing Washington lineup, Hendricks is concentrated on performing the same way he has all season.
"All you're focused on is making pitches," Hendricks said. "That's my job and it never changes, no matter regular-season games, postseason games, no matter who you are facing on the other side of the mound.
"My focus is to go out there, make good pitches, rely on my preparation, which I've done all year long. But when it comes down to it, when those lights turn on, you just have to execute pitches better than the other guy."
Although Hendricks carries the weight of being the first Cubs pitcher this postseason, he said confidently that any of the trio behind him of Lester, Jose Quintana and Jake Arrieta would've deserved the title of Game 1 starter.
"Really with this staff, any of us could be making this start," Hendricks said. "... I'm just taking it as an opportunity to go out and have fun and have my team behind me, and there's nine of us going out there to start Game 1. So I just have focus on my task and what I can do to help my team win the game."
Hendricks is definitely not your typical big league pitcher. You can ignore the radar gun readings at the ballpark; they don't define him.
"He's doing it in a different method," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday. "He's not that guy who lights up the gun; he knows how to pitch. I talk to a lot of different pitching coaches, a lot of different managers and some [general managers], and he's their favorite. I think it's probably because of the style of his pitching and his ability to pitch, the fastball command, the movement on the fastball, the changeup -- he's just fun to watch.
"He's a technician. Coming from Dartmouth to here, what he's done for himself and his career, almost winning a Cy Young last year, is really impressive."
Hendricks led the Major Leagues with a 2.13 ERA last season, and finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting. This year, he went 7-5 with a 3.03 ERA in 24 starts. His second-half numbers are why he's starting Game 1: Hendricks was 4-3 with a 4.09 ERA in 11 starts before the All-Star break, and has gone 3-2 with a 2.19 ERA in 13 starts since.
"I think he's pitching right now better than I saw him any time last year," Maddon said. "The velocity is better, and the other pitches are working better off the greater velocity."
Last year, the right-hander was 1-1 with a 1.42 ERA in five postseason starts, and the Cubs won three of his games, including Game 7 of the World Series. His demeanor is impressive.
"You hardly know he's breathing out there," Lester said. "He may allow it in his head, but you'd never know it. He doesn't let the emotions of the game get to him. The pitching aspect of it is impressive, but what he does on the mound to control his emotions and how he goes about his business out there, you'd never know if he's up 10 [runs], down 10, or if it's an April 15 start or a World Series start."
How does Hendricks do it?
"I'm just having fun out there, really," Hendricks said. "I've dreamed about this my whole life. There's so much that goes on on the outside, the attention, but really it doesn't matter. All that matters is between the lines, and that's what I live for and what I have the most fun doing. I'm dialed in and focused on the task at hand, and I love competing and winning, and that's all I'm doing out there."
The Cubs acquired Hendricks, 27, from the Rangers in July 2012 in exchange for Ryan Dempster. Who would've thought the skinny finance major from Dartmouth would be opening a playoff series?
"We certainly did not envision it at the time," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "He deserves a ton of credit for always growing. We did bet on his makeup. That was a primary drive in the trade. We were pretty convinced he would get the most out of what he had, and continue to keep learning and adjusting. He's taken it to another level. His understanding of the game and his ability to execute at a very, very high level is so impressive. And he's unflappable."