In his five-plus seasons as a mainstay of the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation, Kyle Hendricks has accomplished quite a bit. He’s pitched Game 7 of the World Series, won an ERA title and never finished a season with a WHIP over 1.19.
But Friday night’s season opener with the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field will mark a first in what so far has been a nice career.
First-year manager David Ross tapped Hendricks to make the Opening Night start, breaking Jon Lester’s string of three straight Opening Day starts for the Cubs.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a scrimmage for us or Game 7,” Ross said of Hendricks to MLB.com. “He’s the same guy for us every time he’s out there on the bump.”
Coming off an 11-10 season in which he posted a 3.46 ERA, Hendricks earned the coveted assignment based on his apparent readiness to go deep into a game. During an intrasquad game on July 14, Hendricks needed just 70 pitches to negotiate 6 1/3 innings.
By contrast, Yu Darvish, who will take the ball on Saturday, used 60 pitches to get through only 3 2/3 innings. With starting pitchers’ endurance a big concern in this shortened season after an extended break due to COVID-19 concerns, Hendricks’ efficiency and potential to go deep into a game was attractive to Ross.
“It means a ton to me,” Hendricks said. “It’s on me now to come through.”
Based on his career splits against Milwaukee, Hendricks should be able to give the Cubs a good start. He’s 8-6 with a 3.08 ERA in 21 career outings, holding the Brewers to a meager .242/.284/.341 slash line.
While Chicago tries to take its first step towards reaching the playoffs after missing last year, Milwaukee eyes a third straight postseason appearance. The Brewers figure to score a lot of runs with a power-packed lineup, but must figure out a way to get good starts from a largely unproven rotation.
Manager Craig Counsell will hand the ball to Brandon Woodruff for the opener. The hard-throwing right-hander enjoyed a breakout season last year, although it was chopped up by injury. Woodruff went 11-3 with a 3.62 ERA over 22 starts and 121 2/3 innings, whiffing 143 and posting a solid 1.14 WHIP.
A National League All-Star last year, Woodruff is hoping this is the first of many Opening Night assignments.
“Lord willing, I’m out there for the first game the next few years,” he said to MLB.com. “That means you’re doing something right.”
Woodruff has struggled in limited action against the Cubs, posting a 6.75 ERA with no decisions in five career appearances (two starts). He faced Chicago just once last year, allowing four runs and six hits in four innings.
Counsell said the key to success in a shortened 60-game season will be to adjust quickly.
“We’re going to be hit with the unexpected frequently,” he said. “Instead of getting frustrated by it or complaining about it, we’ve got to move on to the next thing.”
Brewers star Christian Yelich has won the past two NL batting titles while clubbing 80 homers during the span. He was MVP in 2018 and finished second last season when his campaign was cut short by a fractured kneecap on Sept. 10.
–Field Level Media