In late September 2013, the Cubs brought a fresh-faced pitcher still working his way through the minors to Wrigley Field to honor him as their minor league pitcher of the year.
Only four years later, Kyle Hendricks has gone from an intriguing prospect to a Game 7 World Series starter and now a Game 1 starter in the National League Division Series.
The Cubs made it official Wednesday: Hendricks will start Game 1 of the NLDS in Washington on Friday, followed by lefty Jon Lester in Game 2 on Saturday.
When the series comes to Wrigley Field on Monday, Jose Quintana will get the call in Game 3, and if there is a
Game 4, the starter will be Jake Arrieta.
Manager Joe Maddon has talked up Hendricks for the past two weeks, based on his performance since coming off the disabled list in late July.
“Obviously, Kyle has pitched really well,” Maddon said before the Cubs worked out at Wrigley Field and took off for Washington. “We wanted to pop him right there. We also know that the guys who pitch in the first two games can pitch in the fifth game. We thought putting ‘Q’ right in the middle was the right thing for him, also.”
Hendricks has no bigger backer than Lester, the ace of the Cubs’ staff and the man who relieved him in Game 7 of last year’s World Series.
“That’s kind of the evolution of the game and the evolution of him,” Lester said. “He’s done such a good job for us. He’s been consistent. Obviously, he deserves this. It’s a huge honor to pitch Game 1 of any series.
“I’m happy for him because this is kind of that next step. It’s a fun step to have. Hopefully the next step for him is to go through the whole playoffs like that and be our opening day starter next year.”
For his part, Hendricks was his usual cool self about getting the news.
“It’s definitely an honor,” he said. “In some way, I’m going to take it that way. I’m just going to be excited to get out there, the energy that will be there in Game 1. Just go out there and try to pitch my game, make pitches, keep my team in the game, do what I do, treat it as any other game, really.”
Lester said Games 1 and 3 of a postseason series are the toughest for a starter because of all the pregame hoopla, with teams lining up on the field and other pregame ceremonies.
It has been an interesting season for the 27-year-old Hendricks, who won the major league ERA title last year with a mark of 2.13.
He went on the disabled list June 8 with a hand ailment and didn’t return until July 24. At the time he went on the DL, he had an ERA of 4.09. After the All-Star break, he posted a 2.09 ERA.
From Aug. 15 to Sept. 23, he put up eight straight quality starts. Even though his final start of the season was not technically a quality start, Hendricks pitched five shutout innings Sept. 28 at St. Louis.
“Obviously, he’s doing it in a different method or way,” Maddon said. “He’s not that guy who lights up the [radar] gun. He knows how to pitch.
“You talk to a lot of different pitching coaches, a lot of different managers, even some GMs I’ve spoken with, he’s their favorite, I think, probably because of the style of his pitching and the ability to pitch – the fastball command, the movement on the fastball, the change-up.
“He’s just fun to watch, man. He’s a technician, and what he’s done coming from Dartmouth to here, what he’s done for himself and his career, almost winning a Cy Young last year, being in the mix, really impressive.
“And even this year, I’ve said it before, I think he’s pitching better right now than I’ve seen him at any time last year. Why? Because the velocity is heavier. The velocity is better, so the other pitches are working well off the greater velocity.
“So I think he’s at the top of his game right now.”
The Cubs acquired Hendricks in a July 2012 trade with Texas that sent veteran pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Rangers. Even team president Theo Epstein said he did not envision this.
“No, we certainly did not envision it at the time [of the trade],” Epstein said. “But he deserves a ton of credit for always growing. We did bet on his makeup. That was a primary driver in the trade. We were pretty convinced that he would always get the most out of what he had and continue to keep learning and adjusting.
“That part’s come true, but he’s taken it to another level with his understanding of the game and his ability to execute at a very high level on a consistent basis. It’s so impressive, and he’s unflappable.”
Hendricks said he has not reflected on the journey since that time.
“It’s been crazy,” he said. “I haven’t even really gotten to think about all of it. It’s kind of happened in a flash, for sure. You come in here and take every day as it’s presented to you.
“So I’m trying to just live in the moment and not really look back on it right now. Maybe when everything’s over and done with, you can look back at the path. But right now it’s just exciting to be able to pitch in these kinds of game for this kind of team, really.”