How long has it been since Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks was completely locked in and at the top of his game? Not just on a given day, that is, but as a matter of routine.
Peak “Professor,” in other words.
“It’s been a little while, for sure. Maybe a point in 2020?” he said Sunday after pitching into the seventh inning of the Cubs’ 4-3 win against the Royals at Wrigley Field.
Three years is an eternity in a baseball career. Hendricks — and the Cubs — can’t get that time back, can’t reroute a 33-year-old right-hander’s career from good back to potentially great. Once the ace of the team, he’s now trying to hold his own every fifth day in a pennant race for a team that would be elated to have — especially with Marcus Stroman out — any amount of vintage Hendricks it can get.
The Cubs for sure can’t catch and pass the first-place Brewers — who just swept the powerhouse Rangers in Texas — if Hendricks falters. They might not be able to do it unless Hendricks is one of the players leading the charge. With likely eight starts left in his regular season, he believes he can be exactly what the Cubs need.
“It’s going to be more than eight starts,” he said. “That’s what [I] want to give them. We want to be in the place in October, put ourselves in position to make a solid run. We’re preparing to go deep and pitch as many good ballgames, win as many ballgames [as possible] and go deep in October for sure.”
Against the poor-hitting Royals, Hendricks won for only the second time in 10 starts, spanning two months. But he says his fastball command and his bread-and-butter changeup are “the best they’ve been in a long time,” which is encouraging to hear. The curveball isn’t quite there, but hey, who needs Uncle Charlie when you can run a heater up there at a blistering 90 mph?
That’s not serious, of course — “Hendricks’ fastball” remains an oxymoron — but the Professor did straighten his bow tie and unleash 90 mph of fury on two pitches Sunday. The handful of pitches he has thrown that hard this month are the only ones he has managed since, yes, 2020. Even in 2016, the season of his life, when he had the lowest ERA in baseball, he touched 90 only 95 times, according to Statcast. So this is, for him, heady stuff.
The effects of the shoulder injury that cut short Hendricks’ 2022 season are behind him — deep in the rearview — he’s certain.
“I know I’m doing the right things and I know my body is in the right place,” he said. “This way, I can just mentally focus on executing pitches.”
And that always has been his greatest strength.
“I’m real close,” he said.
He has eight more starts — and maybe more — to back that up.
While the Cubs had a five-game homestand against the lowly White Sox and Royals, the Brewers were on a six-game trip to face the mighty Dodgers and Rangers. In the end, all the Cubs gained was a half-game, leaving their deficit at three games. Whether they want to admit it or not, that’s a setback. …
The Cubs are off to Detroit, where they’ll run into former Wrigley favorite Javy Baez. That’s about as un-scary as it gets nowadays, though Baez did homer over the weekend — his first extra-base hit in nearly a month. …
Two weeks after getting punched out by the Guardians’ Jose Ramirez, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson finally talked to the media. It’s hard to understand why Anderson let it get that weird. He could’ve let the air out of the balloon a day or two after the fight simply by saying, “Well, that sure sucked.” We’d have laughed and moved on. …
Young Mariners star Julio Rodriguez had an amazing week at the plate, amassing 17 hits over a four-game stretch. Or as it’s known in Chicago: pulling a White Sox. …
If the Packers-Patriots game can be canceled — with 10:38 remaining — as an injured Pats rookie, Isaiah Bolden, is motionless on the field, then did it really need to be played in the first place? These NFL preseason games are more dangerous than they’re worth. Players give enough — too much — for their money without them. The games are boring, anyway. …
The Lionel Messi effect in Miami continues to be felt at a magical level. The sudden buzz around the MLS team there is so extreme and unprecedented, it makes one wonder what the heck our Fire have been waiting for. Why don’t they just go out and get a Messi? How hard could it be?
No extra charge for the brilliant suggestion. …
A tip of the headband to Illinois’ and Kansas’ men’s basketball programs for scheduling a charity exhibition — on Oct. 29 in Champaign — to raise money for relief efforts after the devastating Maui wildfires. That’s how you do it.
THIS YOU GOTTA SEE
Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel (10 p.m. Tuesday, HBO): A special edition focuses on man’s best friend, with segments on running guide dogs for the blind, high-flying agility dogs and those totally bad-ass Iditarod sled dogs. Ruff stuff.
Notre Dame vs. Navy (1:30 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 5): The Irish and Midshipmen light the college football candle in Dublin, Ireland. The winner will try to avoid going winless from there as Northwestern did last season.
Little League World Series championship (2 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 7): They’re all winners, aren’t they? Yeah, yeah, that’s totally something Mom would say.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
The Angels: They hit a grand slam and turned a triple play Friday and still lost the game. That’s basically the single-day version of having Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout on the team for a half-dozen years without making the playoffs.
Fantasy drafts: Nothing says football like a bunch of dorks sitting around a table in ill-fitting jerseys pretending to be GMs while sprinkling in tales of high school gridiron glory.
Old Blighty: England’s loss to Spain in Sunday’s final left it stuck on zero World Cup titles — women’s or men’s — since 1966. That’ll crumble some crumpets.
P.J. Walker: His 1-for-4 day in Indianapolis won’t help him hold down the Bears’ No. 2 quarterback role. On the bright side, the White Sox offered him a job batting leadoff.
Baby bets: Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and legally wagering on Little Leaguers. God bless America, right?