Three times over the last couple of months, the Cubs played long extra-inning games that pushed the bullpen to its limit.
After a 15-inning game in Cincinnati where two pitchers wound up playing the outfield, Kyle Hendricks was scheduled to start the next day. He threw 6⅔ innings of two-run ball and the Cubs won 9-2.
On the last day of July, the Cubs overcame a six-run deficit and won in 13 innings, with Travis Wood again playing the outfield and seven Cubs relievers combined for nine shutout innings. The next day, Hendricks threw a 123-pitch complete-game shutout against the Marlins.
And Monday night, the Cubs played yet another long game, five hours and 13 innings of baseball that resulted in an 8-7 victory.
Once again, Hendricks stepped up big-time. He threw seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and a walk. Of the 23 Pirates hitters he faced, just eight hit the ball out of the infield. The Cubs shut out the Pirates 3-0 and you can call Hendricks the Bullpen Savior, I suppose -- or maybe you can call him the 2016 National League Cy Young winner, or at least a very strong candidate for that award.
You know the story by now. He doesn't throw hard, peaking at a 90 mile per hour fastball. But his location and speed changing constantly baffle hitters. He retired the first nine Pirates he faced before walking Josh Harrison to lead off the fourth. Then he picked Harrison off. In the next inning, Gregory Polanco dashed any dreams of a Hendricks no-hitter with a leadoff single. After Starling Marte forced Polanco, Miguel Montero threw him out trying to steal second. The pickoff is in the middle of this montage of Hendricks strikeouts:
You can see the movement on those pitches for the called strikeouts. All four of Hendricks' Ks were called Tuesday night.
He wound up allowing a double to pinch-hitter John Jaso in the sixth, and on another single and force play in the seventh, Polanco stole second. Those were the only Pirates to get past first base on Hendricks.
The Cubs didn't have much offense in this one, but with Hendricks' pitching, they didn't need much. Anthony Rizzo homered off the right-field ribbon board [VIDEO] with one out in the first with Javier Baez on base. Baez had been hit by a pitch to lead off the inning. It was Rizzo's first homer since August 14 and just his second this month, even though he's continued to hit at a high level all month (.333/.400/.500, 36-for-108, eight doubles, two triples).
That was all the offense the Cubs needed with the outstanding pitching of Hendricks. They added a run in the second when Russell walked, stole second and scored on a single by Montero. After that inning the Cubs had only three hits, but Cubs pitching shut the Bucs down, too.
Carl Edwards Jr., the only Cubs reliever who didn't throw Monday night, pitched a scoreless eighth, allowing a two-out double to pinch-hitter Matt Joyce, and Aroldis Chapman (31st save, 11th as a Cub) worked a 1-2-3 ninth. Chapman has worked 15⅔ innings as a Cub and walked four while striking out 26. He's faced 59 batters as a Cub and struck out 26, 44.1 percent; that's a better ratio than he had as a Yankee this year (44 of 120, 36.7 percent).
Oddity: Joe Maddon had Wood and Mike Montgomery warming up in the eighth, while Edwards was pitching. Montgomery's supposed to start on Thursday, and it might have been logical to bring Wood in to throw to the lefthanded Joyce, but that didn't happen. Perhaps Joe was seeing what Edwards could do with a runner in scoring position against a lefthanded hitter. And while Chapman was loosening for the ninth, Felix Pena was also warming up, I suppose just in case the Cubs had extended the lead past three runs.
Now, a few more words about Hendricks and his magnificent season.
Hendricks reduced his ERA to 2.09. There have been just two Cubs pitchers who qualified for the ERA title who have had a season ERA that low since the deadball era (generally considered to be since 1920): Lon Warneke, 2.00 in 1933, and Jake Arrieta's 1.77 last year. Hendricks has a 1.21 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts) at Wrigley Field, making him a strong candidate to start a home playoff game. Here are high compliments for Hendricks from the opposing dugout:
Pirates Hurdle on #Cubs Hendricks: "The command, the execution of pitches, I thought I was back in 1987 and it was Greg Maddux on the mound"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 31, 2016
I would have picked a different Maddux year (he had a 5.61 ERA in 1987, which was his first full big-league season), but you get the idea.
And from Joe Maddon:
#Cubs Maddon on Hendricks: "Put the radar gun in your back pocket, look at what he's doing. There has to be strong consideration [for Cy]"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 31, 2016
And some more notes about Hendricks' performance:
Hendricks has given up 3 or fewer runs in 18 straight starts, longest streak in MLB this season. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) August 31, 2016
Kyle Hendricks last 10 games (9 starts) at Wrigley Field:— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 31, 2016
0.82 ERA, 65.2 IP, 44 Hits, 59 K, 0.822 WHIP#Cubs
7 scoreless innings tonight for Kyle Hendricks brings his career ERA down to 2.96 in 419.1 career innings (70 starts, 1 relief app.) #Cubs— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 31, 2016
Not really meaningful, yet amusing:— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 31, 2016
2.95 Chris Sale (1061.0 IP)
2.96 Madison Bumgarner (1358.2 IP)
2.96 Kyle Hendricks (419.1 IP)
Right now, I'd have to think Hendricks is establishing himself to be the favorite for the Cy Young Award, even if Clayton Kershaw returns from his back problems. If Kershaw returns and pitches at the level he did before his injury -- well, then you'd probably have to vote for him, but Hendricks is putting up a second half nearly as good as the one Arrieta did last year. Since the break: 1.34 ERA, 0.895 WHIP in nine starts covering 60⅓ innings, .199 opponents' BA, only 12 walks, and 53 strikeouts, this from a guy who's not really considered a "strikeout pitcher."
There had been dire forecasts of rain and storms earlier Tuesday. It rained -- hard -- for about 15 minutes just after Wrigley's gates opened at 5 p.m. After that the skies cleared up, the wind almost completely died, and the rest of the evening was pleasant, and the rest of the week's weather is supposed to be beautiful, a relief after an August that's been one of the rainiest ever in parts of the Chicago area.
Best of all for the team -- who had been told by Maddon they didn't have be in uniform until 6 p.m., though many were spotted arriving earlier -- the game was finished in a snappy two hours, 36 minutes.
The win was the 21st for the Cubs in August, their most wins in any calendar month since May 1977, when they also won 21 games (21-7 overall that month). If they can win Wednesday night and sweep the series, they'd be 22-6 for August, tying the team record for the best-ever August record, set in 1932.
The Cardinals also won Tuesday night, so the Cubs' lead remains at 14 games, and the magic number for clinching the N.L. Central dropped to 18. There's another magic number to consider, over the Nationals for best overall N.L. record. The Nats won Tuesday as well, so that magic number is now 23.
Wednesday night, the Cubs go for the sweep. Jason Hammel, who threw only 39 pitches Saturday in Los Angeles, goes for the Cubs and Ryan Vogelsong for the Pirates.