Kyle Hendricks came up big time in this win over the Brewers, and in doing so the Cubs went into the last day of the season with a seven-game winning streak, a 96-65 record, and with a mark one game behind the Pirates, they still had a chance to tie them for the top wild-card spot and thus get the game played at Wrigley Field.
All of you know how big a fan I've been of Kyle Hendricks, following his acquisition by the Cubs from the Rangers in the Ryan Dempster deal in 2012. I followed his rise through the Cubs farm system, where he dominated every level, to his fine rookie year, and even had faith he'd find his rhythm through a number of rough stretches in 2015.
Just at the right time, he seems to have found his groove again. Hendricks retired the first 16 Brewers he faced before allowing a one-out single to Martin Maldonado in the sixth inning. Would he have been left out there for another inning if he'd thrown six perfect frames?
That's a question best left for offseason debates, I suppose; at the time the Cubs needed offense, leading just 1-0. The bullpen did its job (more on that anon) and the Cubs won the game 1-0, their ninety-sixth triumph of this remarkable season. That leaves things to this final day of the regular season to determine whether the Cubs will host the wild-card game or travel to Pittsburgh Wednesday, as the Pirates lost to the Reds (thanks, Reds!). Two weeks ago, after losing 4-0 to the Bucs, the Cubs trailed them by 5½ games with just eight remaining. The Cubs have refused to lose since then; this win was their seventh in a row, the second time this season they've won that many consecutive contests.
Hendricks, who still barely breaks 90 on the pitch-speed meter on a good day, was locked in. He had great movement on his pitches, inducing ground balls. And when he wasn't doing that, his offspeed pitches were registering knee-bending called strikeouts. This is the Hendricks we saw last year -- and if you're thinking "Well, it's only the Brewers," remember that he did pretty much the same thing against the 94-win Royals just last Monday. If I'm Joe Maddon, I'm penciling Hendricks in for the Game 2 start against the Cardinals in the division series.
Have to get there first, of course.
The hitting hero in this one was Chris Coghlan, he of the mild playing-time complaints Friday. Maddon gave Coghlan a start Saturday and Coghlan went out there as if to show Joe that he deserved to stay there. He tripled in the second inning and scored on an Addison Russell single. At the time, no one had any inkling that would be the only run of the game. Coghlan later doubled and singled and came up to the plate in the eighth inning with a chance to hit for the cycle. Why not? This year's been filled with Cubs doing things that haven't been done for decades, and no Cub has cycled since Mark Grace did it 22 years ago, May 9, 1993.
It didn't happen. It's hard to hit home runs to begin with, and especially when you're trying (and of course he was, don't kid yourself) to do it to complete a cycle. Coghlan was called out on strikes.
The Cubs pen did its job. Pedro Strop threw a 1-2-3 seventh. Fernando Rodney did issue a walk and allow a single, but got out of the inning on a nifty double play. And then Hector Rondon joined the Cubs' 30-save club with one of his patented low-pitch-count (just eight pitches) saves, a strikeout and two easy ground balls, and the Cubs had win No. 96.
96 wins. Man, who saw that coming? The 96-65 record matches the 1984 team's final mark (they had one rainout not made up), and with one game remaining Sunday afternoon this year's squad has a chance to match the 2008 Cubs for the most wins for any Cubs team since 1945.
And so the race for home field in the N.L. wild-card game comes down to this: if the Pirates win Sunday afternoon, the game will be in Pittsburgh. If the Pirates lose and the Cubs win, the teams will tie at 97 wins and the game will be at Wrigley Field. The Reds have played the Pirates tough this weekend and the Brewers seem to have already packed things in for 2015, so ... why not?
A few more notes on this one: Hendricks' fine outing brought his season ERA below 4.00; he finishes at 3.95, and since September 1 his ERA is 2.94, with 39 strikeouts in 33⅔ innings. He had eight K's Saturday evening, and he's not really what we normally think of as a "strikeout pitcher." The win he was credited with brought his W/L record to 8-7, which means he had 17 no-decisions in his 32 starts. That ties the franchise record set by Dennis Eckersley in 1987. Hendricks had a much better year than Eckersley, who was 6-11 with a 4.53 ERA.
Hendricks' finishing ERA means the Cubs have four qualified starters with ERAs under 4.00. That makes this year just the fifth time any Cubs team has done that since 1945 (the others: 1963, 1969, 1972 and 2009).
The win was the Cubs' 21st shutout of the year, the most for any Cubs team since 1969, when they had 22. It was their fifth 1-0 win, most in that category since 2010 (the team record for 1-0 wins in one season is nine, set in 1906).
The one down note on this one, and I do need to mention it, was again the Cubs' failure to hit with RISP. They were just 2-for-13 with RISP and left 12 men on base overall. This is going to have to improve for the team to have postseason success.
One more regular-season contest and this year enters the history books, with hopefully a long postseason run to follow. Dan Haren, likely making the final start of his big-league career, goes for the Cubs against another Milwaukee rookie, Jorge Lopez, as the Cubs go for eight straight wins. Don't forget the unusual starting time for Sunday's game, as all MLB games (except Game 1 of the Cardinals/Braves makeup doubleheader) will start at the same hour this afternoon.