Cubs

Hendricks Must be Treated like an Ace if the Cubs are to Win the NLDS

While I wasn’t the first to suggest the Cubs should start Kyle Hendricks in game one (and, in effect, game five should the series get there) I can’t tell you how happy relieved I was when the Cubs announced their rotation for the NLDS. My prediction of Kyle Hendricks/ Jose Quintana/ Jon Lester/ Jake Arrieta was damn close, with only Lester and Quintana swapping games two and three. In hindsight, this is a sensible move, as Lester’s final two starts (1 ER in 11 IP) suggest he just might be primed to be his typical playoff self. It also allows Quintana to make his playoff debut at home – a reality that shouldn’t be discarded as superfluous.

The most important of all these decisions, of course, is the game one starter. The Cubs should not be handing Kyle the game one start out of necessity; he’s earned this right. With a 2.19 second-half ERA (3.38 FIP) and with his fastball velocity finally returning to the 87 MPH range, Kyle has reemerged as the face of dependability. While he has averaged a mediocre 6 innings per start since his return from the DL, that number can largely be chalked up to being coddled somewhat upon returning from injury, or otherwise getting pulled early by Maddon.

Let’s focus on the latter, as that will have significant ramifications in the NLDS. While Maddon has praised Hendricks, saying he’s at the top of his gamehe hasn’t exactly forecast he’ll be pitching deep into postseason games, with demurred quotes that betray confidence in Kyle: “Every situation is different. Right now, I anticipate him pitching well into this game on Friday night. I think he’s there. I think he’s there emotionally, physically, mentally. Every game’s different, man.’’

This approach to Kyle is maddening. Joe’s enthusiasm for him is tempered if we’re being generous, all the while stating (rightfully so) he has all the confidence in the world in Lester during the playoffs. I get expressing total trust in Lester, but I find it suspicious that Maddon can only muster cautious optimism regarding his game one starter.

Hendricks has arguably been the Cubs’ best pitcher the past two seasons and has also established a nice little playoff pedigree. In 7 career postseason starts, he has a 2.38 ERA in 34 IP. This includes last year’s gem in the deciding game 6 of the NLCS, twirling 7 1/3 innings of a two-hit ball – against the greatest pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw. And, of course, there’s game 7 of the World Series, in which Kyle was dominating a Cleveland team while facing Corey Kluber, who had already won two games in the series. Up 4-1 in the bottom of the 5th, Hendricks gave up a two walk out with no one on and, inexplicably, Maddon pulled him to bring in Lester. (We all know how this ends; my incredulity remains.) Hendricks line the most important game in the history of the franchise? 4 2/3 IP, 4 H, 1 ER.

Look, my argument isn’t that Hendricks should be left out on the mound come hell or high water. What I am arguing, however, is that Maddon must allow him the chance to fail. You don’t pull your ace because there’s a potential for a big inning. You give your ace a chance to work out of tight jams – and, more often than not, elite pitchers find a way to get the job done. There’s no credible reason for Maddon to dismiss Hendricks as his ace.

The argument being made isn’t all about one player. If Hendricks is in a tight spot in a low scoring affair in the 5th inning tonight, and Maddon yanks his leash, the effects will reverberate throughout the rest of the series. The bullpen will be working too much too early, and there’ll be pressure on our other starters to go deep into ballgames. This is the worst case scenario for the pitching staff, regardless of the outcome of game one. Added to that, we still don’t know if Arrieta will show up for game four healthy, which means we might be relying on John Lackey in a game that might decide the series (one way or the other). So if game four becomes a crapshoot your bullpen should damn well be rested as much as possible.

I’m not going to proclaim that Hendricks is absolutely going to dominate – but it certainly is my expectation. He could very well struggle, and if he does, Maddon should absolutely pull him early. But the point here is that Maddon needs to demonstrate the trust in him that’s becoming a #1 starter. Anything less than giving Hendricks that right will be detrimental to the Cubs chances of coming out of this series on top.

I have a lot of feelings percolating for this NLDS match-up with Washington. (Here’s a complete preview of the series from The Loop Sports.) There’s the awkward confidence that comes with being underdogs, especially considering the Cubs are the defending champs with a strong September showing – even if momentum is, at best, a questionable merit entering the playoffs. There’s a desire for vengeance concerning Dusty Baker who, while a fine manager, broke my 18-year-old heart in 2003 overusing my favorites (Kerry Wood and Mark Prior). There’s a hope Daniel Murphy goes o-fer the entire series to level out his 2015 NLCS numbers. These feelings are juxtaposed in a manner that’s driving me crazy, and yet the most important consideration remains how Joe Maddon ultimately treats Kyle Hendricks.

I’m calm and confident. I’m emotionally erratic and nervous. I don’t know how to control the feelings that I have, and truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love playoff baseball.

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