Kyle Hendricks Can Cement Breakout Season by Pitching Cubs to World Series Brink

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 28, 2016

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  Kyle Hendricks #28 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game six of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Kyle Hendricks might win the National League Cy Young Award. He's MLB's reigning ERA king. By any measure, 2016 has been a very good year for the Chicago Cubs right-hander.

On Friday, he has a chance to cement his breakout season and go from very good to immortal by pitching the Cubbies to the championship brink.

Nothing will be decided in Game 3. But with the series knotted 1-1, it's a pivotal contest. In World Series history, teams with a 2-1 advantage have won it all 56 times and lost just 27 times, per WhoWins.com.

It's a big game symbolically, too. The North Side is hosting the Fall Classic for the first time since 1945. The ghosts of Wrigley Field will be out in force. A victory would quiet their groaning.

Momentum is fleeting and impossible to quantify. And nothing's guaranteed, especially against a resilient Cleveland Indians club that hasn't lost two games in a row since September 28.

Hendricks, however, has worked magic all season on the mound at 1060 W. Addison St.

In 95.1 innings at home in the regular season, Hendricks went 9-2 with a 1.32 ERA. He's made all three of his postseason starts at Wrigley and posted a 1.65 ERA.

He twirled an absolute masterpiece in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, outdueling Clayton Kershaw and facing the minimum number of hitters over 7.1 shutout frames.

"Starts with maybe the clubhouse, the fans," Hendricks said of his Wrigley mastery, per Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. "It just feels like I'm right at home, honestly." 

That explains why manager Joe Maddon tinkered with his rotation, moving Jake Arrieta up to the No. 2 slot and bumping Hendricks down to No. 3. Arrieta—who wobbled in the second half and the postseasonmade his manager look brilliant with a strong showing in Game 2 on Wednesday. 

Now, it's Hendricks' turn.

An eighth-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 2011, Hendricks was traded to the Cubs for pitcher Ryan Dempster in 2012. He posted a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts with Chicago in 2014, and in 2015 he logged a 3.95 ERA in 180 innings. 

This year, he took a Sonic the Hedgehog-sized leap forward.

He'll never singe the radar gun; his fastball tops out in the low-90s. Instead, he relies on commandstealing strikes with his curveball, inducing ground balls with his sinker and keeping hitters off balance with his plus changeup.

CBS Chicago's Chris Emma contrasted Hendricks' numbers to those of his Cleveland counterpart:

Hendricks forced ground balls at a 48.4 percent rate this season, and has a home run-to-fly ball rate of just 9.3 percent, good for third in baseball. His Game 3 foe, Josh Tomlin, was third-worst in home runs per nine innings at 1.86 and fourth-worst in HR/FB at 17.7 percent.

One could think the Cubs have the edge on the mound for Game 3 of the World Series.

To be fair, Tomlin is 2-0 with a 2.53 ERA in 10.2 postseason innings and hasn't allowed a homer yet.

It helps that Hendricks is backed by the best defense in baseball. But the Greg Maddux comparisons seem less outlandish with each superlative outing.

Just ask Greg Maddux.

"He does all those things usually better than the guys he's facing," Maddux said of Hendricks, per ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers. "If it was a radar contest, then why play the game, right? Velocity is nice, but command and movement are better."

Hendricks has drawn favorable comparisons to Hall of Fame control specialist Greg Maddux.
Hendricks has drawn favorable comparisons to Hall of Fame control specialist Greg Maddux.Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Hendricks has next to zero history with the Indians. Among Cleveland hitters on the World Series roster, he's faced only Coco Crisp, who has gone 0-for-3 against him.

A lack of familiarity often favors the pitcher, at least the first time through the lineup. Toss in Hendricks' home dominance and the pent-up energy that'll inevitably be behind him, and you've got all the ingredients for a legendary October showing.

If you think the enormity of the moment will speed things up for the 26-year-old, his skipper begs to differ.

"I've never seen him rush through anything," Maddon said, per Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune. "I'm sure he takes his time brushing his teeth. I would imagine his cup of coffee takes two hours to drink."

A low pulse under pressure. A sparkling home record. A chance to propel the Cubs one step closer to a parade and confetti 108 years in the offing.

This is a Moment, capital "M." Hendricks simply needs to seize it.

         

All statistics current as of Thursday and are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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