WASHINGTON – It was tough to tell who the “phenom” was and who the “finesse guy” was Friday night.
The way the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was dealing, the Cubs were going to need a break. They were going to need to capitalize. And they were going to need their guy to match the much-ballyhooed Strasburg pitch for pitch.
Enter Kyle Hendricks.
The Cubs’ professorial right-hander, fueled by some added adrenaline and by watching Strasburg handcuff his mates early, stepped up his own game, hitting 90-plus mph on the radar gun at times and working seven shutout innings as the Cubs beat Washington, 3-0, to take Game 1 of the National League Division Series at noisy Nationals Park.
Pitchers often will say they don’t pitch against other pitchers, that they pitch against the other team’s lineup. But Hendricks knew what was going on, and he couldn’t shake the specter of Strasburg firing his own heat, complemented with 90-mph changeups, of all things.
“Somewhat independent,” Hendricks said when asked about his own thought process as it related to Strasburg. “You’re aware of it. You know how well he’s throwing (on) the other side. You don’t think you have to step it up. You’ve just got to know, every pitch, you’ve got to up your focus, because one pitch could be the difference in the ballgame. Luckily, we caught a break there, and we were able to take advantage of it.”
That break came in the sixth. Strasburg had pitched no-hit ball through five before Javy Baez bounced one to third base. Anthony Rendon looked to have an easy play, but he dropped the ball for an error. Hendricks bunted Baez to second, and after Ben Zobrist flied out, the breakthrough came.
Kris Bryant singled to right for the Cubs’ first hit of the game. Bryant alertly took second on the throw. The cutoff man almost got him at second, but replay confirmed he was safe. Anthony Rizzo then lined one to right field, but Bryce Harper couldn’t come up with the ball, and Rizzo had an RBI single.
“He was the best pitcher I’ve seen, probably,” Rizzo said of Strasburg, who posted ERAs of 1.89 in July, 0.86 in August and 0.38 in September. “First two at-bats, made me look silly, made the whole lineup look silly. The timely hit is huge in the playoffs. KB with that big hit to break up, to get the monkey off our backs in the dugout for all of us.”
Manager Joe Maddon started with an offensive-oriented lineup, with Kyle Schwarber in left field, Jason Heyward moving from right to center and Ben Zobrist in right.
The plan was to sub for defense if the Cubs had the lead. Players such as Albert Almora Jr., Jon Jay and Leonys Martin saw the field in the later innings.
But the talk was all about Hendricks.
“This is as good as I’ve seen him, the last two or three starts,” Maddon said. “Why? Because the velocity is ticking up. I don’t know how accurate their (radar) gun is … but if the gun was accurate, he hit as high as 91. He probably pitched at 87 or 88, which is good, but he touches 90 to 91.”
Maddon and the Cubs’ decision-makers look good after this one. They opted for Hendricks in Game 1, with ace lefty Jon Lester for Game 2. If this series goes five games, Hendricks will be waiting in the wings. Hendricks didn’t want to let anybody down, and he didn’t.
“Yeah, it feels really good, but Joe has always been there for me – his whole staff,” he said.
“They have instilled a lot of confidence in me ever since I came here. Even when I first came up, I had a bad year and they stuck with me. So it’s been like that way for a long time.
“But to get this nod for Game 1, just try to set the tone for the team is huge.”