Since beginning the season 2-7, the Chicago Cubs have reeled off 24 victories versus just 10 losses, a run that has been driven by a combination of red-hot offense and sparkling work by the starting rotation. Following that rough start that largely centered around the lackluster play by the Cubs’ pitching staff, Chicago’s starting pitchers have posted a 2.62 ERA, besting the Tampa Bay Rays for the best mark in the league.
Their 202.1 innings pitched rank eighth in the majors while the starting staff has limited opposing batters to a .219/.280/.336 slash line, of which the latter number leads the majors. To get the job done, the Cubs’ starters have relied on a pretty simple mix of positive attributes. Firstly, they have limited hard contact, allowing the fourth lowest rate in baseball since April 7 (33.3 percent) while at the same time allowing hitters to pound the baseball into the ground at a 49.8 percent clip, a number that also leads all of baseball.
As a result of that impressive ground ball work, the Cubs’ starters have posted the third lowest fly ball in the game at just 30 percent while amassing the seventh best difference between strikeout and walk rate (17.3 percent) during this stretch of play.
While the Cubs’ offense has yet to really go cold for an extended amount of time this season (knock on wood), it was the lackluster play of the pitching staff that limited the team’s performance in the early going. With that cleaned up, the Cubs find themselves leading a tough National League Central Division coming into their rubber match against the Washington Nationals on Sunday.
In front of the bright lights for a third consecutive week, the Cubs looked the move back to 10 games over .500 following a 5-2 loss on Saturday night. As in the early portions of the season, starting pitching played a large role in the Cubs’ loss on Saturday as Jon Lester managed just 4.1 innings, allowing five earned runs on 10 hits. Entering play, Lester was sporting a 1.16 ERA, a number that would have lead the majors if he qualified in the innings department.
Even with his less-than-stellar outing which he owned on social media after the fact, Lester’s season ERA sits at 2.09, among the best in the game. Not far behind Lester was the Cubs’ starter for Sunday Night Baseball against the Nationals, Kyle Hendricks.
Hendricks kicked off his 2019 season with a 5.33 ERA across his first five starts, four of which resulted in losses for his club. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why the right-hander struggled early in the season. Across his first 25.1 innings, Hendricks allowed 37 hits with a 41.9 percent hard contact rate. Additionally, the right-hander allowed an opposing batting average of .339 with a .486 slugging percentage while striking out just 20.2 percent of hitters.
Just three seasons removed from leading the league in ERA, fans remained confident that Hendricks who be able to turn things around considering his successful track record with the Cubs. Perhaps as a telling sign of that, opposing batter’s BABIP during Hendricks’ struggles sat at .405, a number that was completely out of a sustainable range.
Well, since allowing seven earned runs on 10 hits over five earned runs against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 26, Hendricks is enjoying the positive side of regression.
Spanning 25 innings and three starts prior to Sunday’s outing, Hendricks has rounded into his 2016 form, allowing just one earned run across 87 total batters faced for a 0.36 ERA. That one run was a solo home run by Joey Votto on May 14, an outing in which Hendricks tossed eight-plus innings of three-hit baseball against the Reds.
Overall, Hendricks has issued 12 hits over this 25 inning stretch, holding opposing batters to a .141/.161/.188 slash line. As for opposing hitters batted ball profile, Hendricks has limited them to a 30.9 percent hard contact rate while inducing a ground ball 44.6 percent of the time. While Hendricks’ strikeout rate has suffered, sitting at just 19.5 percent during that run, the right-hander allowed only one walk, holding batters to a .164 average on batted balls in play.
Beyond the counting statistics, Hendricks has been the most efficient form of himself over his last three starts, pitching to contact in an almost Greg Maddux-like style. In his last three outings, Hendricks has topped out at 97 pitches, needing only 81 offerings to four-hit the St. Louis Cardinals back on May 3. Coined a “Maddux,” Hendricks is the first pitcher in five seasons to throw at least eight innings in three straight starts and need less than 100 pitches to do so in each outing.
From Cubs notes: Hendricks is the first pitcher to throw at least 8 innings and throw fewer than 100 pitches in three consecutive starts since Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma, May 8-20, 2014
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) May 19, 2019
No stranger to the big stage, Hendricks looked to continue his outstanding stretch of play on Sunday against the Nationals as the Cubs hoped to take two-of-three against their NL rivals.
In the early going, it was clear Hendricks had some of his best stuff working. Needing 20 pitches to work through the first and second innings, Hendricks garnered three strikeouts to the first six batters in Dave Martinez‘s lineup. Of those 20 offerings, Hendricks induced four swinging strikes including three during his nine-pitch second inning, one each on his fastball, sinker and change-up.
Adding two called strikes to that frame, Hendricks was able to pound the strike zone early, helping him to maintain his efficient nature. Into the third and fourth, Hendricks had yet to yield a hit, combining to need an additional 29 pitches to work those frames. Exclusively sinkers and four-seam fastballs in the third, Hendricks mixed in six change-ups to go along with his 15 sinkers in the fourth, offerings that garnered only one swinging strike but five called strikes.
While he worked a clean frame in the fourth, it started to become clear Hendricks command was beginning to wane. Below is a pitch chart of Hendricks’ fourth.
Maintaining a healthy 4-0 lead heading into the fifth inning, however, Hendricks was cruising right along, having allowed just a free pass to the Nationals. As was stated on the national broadcast, it was like Hendricks ran into a brick wall on the mound entering the middle innings against Washington.
Not to be considered a push-over lineup, part of the Nationals’ problem this season as been under-performance from their hitters. Entering play, the Nationals owned the 20th best wRC-plus in baseball, sporting a 91 mark, three ticks worst than the Kansas City Royals.
Nevertheless their lack of success entering play or Hendricks’ no-hit bid against them through four innings on Sunday, the Nationals lineup finally seemed to wake-up in the fifth and sixth frames.
Beginning with a bloop single to lead-off the fifth inning that broke Hendricks’ no-hitter, Washington was able to push across four runs between innings number five and six, with three runs coming on an Anthony Rendon three-run home run in the sixth.
Much of Hendricks’ struggles in the middle innings, more so the sixth inning, revolved around his sudden lack of command for his sinker. At one point having thrown the offering 20 straight times, Hendricks left pitch-after-pitch over the middle of the plate, resulting in Rendon’s home run and a double off the bat of Juan Soto.
As you can see from the above pitch chart, the right-hander’s command in the sixth lacked the sharpness that it had prior in the evening while, when he missed, it was high, suggesting Hendricks may not have been finishing his pitches like in previous frames.
Following a two out single that was made worse by a throwing error charged to Addison Russell, Joe Maddon pulled the plug on what was once a promising outing for Hendricks. While the box score will suggest he didn’t pitch well, nothing could be further from the truth as Hendricks put on a clinic through the first four frames.
Instead of finishing his outing strong, however, Hendricks began relying a bit too much on his sinker as his command waned and the Washington hitters started putting better swings on his offerings. Not able to complete the sixth, Hendricks’ streak of at least eight innings per start is snapped at three games.
Hendricks’ final line looked like this: 5.2 innings, six hits, four earned runs, two walks and four strikeouts on 83 pitches. Of those offerings, Hendricks induced eight swinging strikes, adding another 20 called strikes to the mix.
Offensively, the Cubs pounded out just enough runs to withstand the Nationals’ rally in the middle innings on Sunday.
Early in the first, the Cubs got the run-scoring party started with a RBI ground out off the bat of Javier Baez. Batting out of the four-hole in Maddon’s lineup, Baez was the first Cub hitter not to draw a walk on Sunday as Jeremy Hellickson issued three straight free passes to load the bases.
Presented with an opportunity to break things open early, the Cubs walked away with just that one run as Daniel Descalso bounced into a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.
Contrary to what they did on Friday against Washington, the Cubs tacked on runs, not in bunches, but one at a time. In the second, Kyle Schwarber earned an RBI, sending a sac-fly to center field, moving the Cubs’ lead to 2-0. Schwarber’s second inning sac-fly would be his first of two on Sunday as he gave the Cubs their fourth run of the game in the fourth with a fly out to right field.
Sandwiched in between those sac-flies, Anthony Rizzo blasted his 11th home run of the season in the third inning. Briefly making the Cubs’ advantage 3-0 ahead of Schwarber, Rizzo’s blast exited the bat at exactly 100 MPH, barely flying over the fence in left field at 385-feet.
The Cubs’ fifth and sixth runs each came in the sixth and stood as important insurance runs as the Nationals mounted a comeback. After having his on-base streak snapped on Saturday night, Kris Bryant needed just one at-bat to begin a new one, drawing a walk in the first inning.
In the sixth, however, Bryant kicked off a hitting streak, singling to plate the Cubs’ sixth run of the game to move their advantage to 6-1. Bryant’s RBI single came just two batters after Hendricks laid down a perfect bunt to score Jason Heyward and capitalize on a lead-off single.
All told, five different Cub hitters recorded an RBI on Sunday night, but combined for just one hit in 11 chances with runners in scoring position, leaving nine men on base in the process.
Up 6-4 after Rendon’s home run in the sixth, the Nationals added another run to their tally courtesy of a Howie Kendrick solo home run in the seventh frame. Yielded by the Cubs’ bullpen, that would be the only run issued by Cubs relievers in prime time as they worked a clean eighth and ninth inning.
Thanks to an overall solid outing by Hendricks, a good day offensively and a couple clean frames from the bullpen, the Cubs moved their record to 27-17 with a 6-5 victory over the Nationals on Sunday night. With the loss, the Nationals drop to 19-27 as the Cubs took two of three from them in their home ball park.
One thing to keep an eye on for the Cubs, however. In the third, Baez fielded a slow moving ground ball off the bat of Hellickson, falling to the turf in awkward fashion in the process. Despite not exiting the game until the sixth, Baez was in obvious pain from what appeared to be his right ankle for the duration of those three innings.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will begin a four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday at 7:05 pm at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be right-hander Yu Darvish (2-3, 5.14 ERA). Much of the 2019 campaign has been a struggle for the veteran, but his last outing provided hope that a turnaround is close at hand.
Across 5.1 innings against the Cincinnati Reds on May 15, the right-hander yielded two earned runs on five hits while striking out 11 batters without allowing a free pass. Of his nine starts thus far, Darvish has failed to allow a walk in just two of them, racking up 33 free passes in 42 total innings this season.
Opposing Darvish on the mound Monday will be right-hander Jake Arrieta (4-4, 4.02 ERA). The former Cub jumped out to a quick start in 2019, posting a 3.82 ERA across 33 innings during the month of April. May, however, has been another story for the 33-year-old. In three outings spanning 17 innings, Arrieta owns a 5.29 ERA, having allowed 17 hits and four home runs while striking out 17 batters.
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