Pennant races are like snowflakes.
They all might look alike, but every one is different.
Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks has been through six races over the last nine seasons and is involved in his seventh. Five of the six ended with the Cubs making the postseason, and one concluded with a World Series title.
“There are a lot of similarities in a lot of ways,” Hendricks said in a recent interview. “Every year is different, just with the dynamics and the (different) guys. But this one in particular has some feel to ‘15. Just that it’s a little unexpected in a way, from the outside.
“Definitely not internally. We knew what we had coming in and knew the chance we had. But both years, externally, the expectations were a lot lower than what we thought we had.”
The 2015 Cubs were a far superior team than this bunch, led by Jake Arrieta’s untouchable run and the maturation of rookies Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. That team was only five games over .500 on July 29 before going on a second-half run that separated them from the back.
They were 4 1/2 games out of the first wild-card spot on Sept. 1, followed closely by the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets. The Cubs went a combined 23-9 in September and October to finish with 97 wins, earning the second wild-card spot.
Arrieta outdueled Pittsburgh Pirates ace Gerrit Cole in the wild-card game that had been anticipated since mid-September, and the Cubs’ magical season continued with an upset of the St. Louis Cardinals in a Division Series. Being swept by the hated Mets in the National League Championship Series wasn’t as hard to swallow for Cubs fans who put the season in perspective.
An NLCS appearance in 2023 would suit most Cubs fans just fine. No one outside the Cubs’ realm really expects them to repeat the success of that 2015 team, much less win it all as they did one year later. Just getting into October is what matters, and everyone can worry about how far the Cubs can go if and when that happens.
Everyone says when a team starts poorly that it’s early and they still believe in themselves. But those claims rang hollow when the team was 10 games under .500 on June 8. A smaller-scale repeat of the 2021 sell-off seemed inevitable.
“It’s easy to say we always did feel like (we’d rebound),” Hendricks said. “But you see the positives and the negatives. We weren’t playing our best at a certain point there, hit a (bad) stretch for about a month. But we knew the potential was there. It was clear we needed to stay positive. We knew what we had in the room, so we knew where we could get, and you always have that belief when you’re in the circle in this clubhouse.
“Once we started playing good baseball, fundamental baseball … you’ve seen what our lineup has done, solidified itself, and the bullpen has done an unbelievable job. Those are big pieces that have carried us day in and day out. Those things show up every day.”
After a drubbing by the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 4, the 33-year-old Hendricks is 1-1 with a 2.48 ERA over his last five starts, rounding into form from his return on May 25 after missing the final three months of 2022 following surgery from a capsular tear in his right shoulder.
He has been relying on his fastball and changeup while reducing his curveball usage, noting that he hasn’t had a consistent feel for the pitch.
“We’ve been fighting that battle of trying to find spots to mix in my curveball and use it, but not forcing it, giving up stuff when I’m getting outs on the other pitches,” he said. “I’ve got to use it more. Early in my career, this is more like it was. I was really stubborn with my fastball and changeup. But I feel like I was in a much different place when I was younger, so it hindered me.”
Hendricks also knows his problems holding baserunners need improvement. He said the added focus on baserunning, in addition to the pitch clock and new pickoff limitations, force pitchers to mix up their cadence and timing to control the running game.
Greg Maddux often got away with ignoring baserunners in his day. He just focused on getting hitters out. But Hendricks knows he’s not a strikeout pitcher and can’t afford to let hitters get into scoring position as easily as they have in some starts.
“One of those little bloopers or something, and now we’re giving up runs,” he said. “There is a fine line and a balance. The bottom line is we’ve got to improve and just limit it a little more to be sure.”
Marcus Stroman, their top starter into mid-June, is out with a fractured right rib cartilage and could miss the rest of the season. No. 2 starter Jameson Taillon has been inconsistent, and manager David Ross has two rookies in the rotation after demoting Drew Smyly for a second time. It looks as if Justin Steele and Hendricks must carry the load, just as Arrieta and Jon Lester did as veterans in 2015.
That’s a bet most Cubs fans would take. Hendricks is a combined 17-8 with a 2.88 over his career in regular-season games in September/October, typically saving his best for last.
This is not the 2015 Cubs by any stretch.
But as the last remaining player from that memorable season, Hendricks can remind the others how it was done.