As Kyle Hendricks stepped onto the bench, Chicago Cubs manager David Ross greeted the veteran with a handshake to highlight his strong performance Wednesday night.
Hendricks delivered another classic performance in an 8-3 victory, holding the Washington Nationals to one run in six innings. He did not walk and struck out five on 97 pitches.
Right-hander Julian Merryweather couldn’t hold the lead and gave up two runs in the eighth., however, behind a five-run eighth inning. Yan Gomes’ pinch-hit sacrifice fly with the bases loaded tied the game, and Nico Hoerner’s first career grand slam buried the Nationals.
The series win sets up the Cubs (45-50) for a pivotal four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals to close out the homestand.
So many unknowns surround the Cubs’ plans in the 12 days leading up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline. Hendricks’ future with the organization falls under that uncertainty.
Based on how he’s currently lined up in the rotation, Wednesday represented Hendricks’ last start at Wrigley before the deadline. If he continues to pitch every five games (the Cubs are off Monday), he’s positioned to start Tuesday against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field and next Sunday’s series finale in St. Louis.
“You know, I hadn’t given it much thought,” Hendricks said of the possibility of Wednesday being his last home start. “I think we all know where we are and we know the situation, but for me right now, honestly, I’m very happy to be back playing, to be with my guys, to go out on the field with my teammates every day and try to win. After the last year that I had with the injury and stuff, I really dove into the game right now.
“So whatever it is, I think everyone knows, obviously, I really hope to still be here.”
Ross has had a front row seat for most of Hendricks’ outstanding career with the Cubs. Ross spent six of Hendricks’ 10 big league seasons as his teammate or manager in Chicago. That unique prospect included five regular-season starts at catcher for Hendricks, a tandem that produced his lowest ERA among the 10 backups to catch at least 20 innings from right-hander.
“As stable as it gets: a competitor, work ethic, demeanor, performance when healthy,” Ross said. “He has the guts, the strength to come out when he’s not healthy and give you everything he’s got. He’s a problem solver on the mound. Great teammate, without problems on or off the pitch.
“A World Series brother to me, I mean, he’s a championship player, he’s a world champion and he takes the ball in the biggest moments.”
The 33-year-old Hendricks couldn’t be expected to pitch as well as he has this year in his return from a capsular tear in his right shoulder. The injury sidelined him for 10 months and 21 days between major league starts. Since he made his season debut May 25, Hendricks has been the Cubs’ third-leading starter, posting a 3.38 ERA in 11 starts, including Wednesday.
He has allowed just one walk in his last five starts (29 1/3 innings), the fewest walks he has issued in a five-game span of his career.
“That was a bit of a battle,” Hendricks said of his departure. “They don’t walk. They don’t really strike out that many foul balls, a lot of deep counts. But at the end of the day I came out when I needed to. I need to be a little sharper, a little more aggressive early in the count, especially to get the first strike.”
There are no guarantees for Hendricks’ future with the Cubs, at the trade deadline and beyond. The Cubs have a $16 million team option for 2024 with a $1.5 million buyout. Even if president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer opts to keep Hendricks through the end of the season, the Cubs might not be willing to exercise the option at that salary. Perhaps the organization would instead try to retain Hendricks via a short-term, multi-year deal.
No matter which direction the Cubs ultimately take at the trade deadline, one thing always rings true: Nothing is promised in this game, even for franchise greats.
“You have to feel really good about your chances when he comes up on the mound,” Ross said. “Shoot, I love Kyle.”