Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks taps into best version of himself in return to rotation

The last at-bat of Kyle Hendricks’ start Wednesday had some of the unfamiliar twists and turns that made his outing so successful. He got the Giants’ Heliot Ramos to foul off a curveball for strike two. And in a 2-2 count, he threw a sinker up and in to induce Ramos to ground into a fielder’s choice.

“[Catcher Miguel Amaya] called a lot of curveballs for me, just a good mix, throwing heaters up, things I wouldn’t normally do, probably,” Hendricks said after the Cubs’ 6-5 victory against the Giants. “But if it’s unpredictable to me, I think that’s a good thing right now. It’s being unpredictable for the hitters, too.”

In Hendricks’ first start back in the rotation, after being relegated to the bullpen for four weeks, he held the Giants to one run through 5⅔ innings. He carried a no-hit bid through five innings and only allowed a double and a bunt single.

He wasn’t “vintage Kyle.” He’d put a twist on what had made him successful in the past with the hope of unlocking the most effective version at this stage of his career. On Wednesday, it helped the Cubs claim their first series victory since they swept a two-game set against the White Sox on June 4-5. In series of three games or more, the Cubs hadn’t claimed a series victory since May 10-12 at Pittsburgh.

“With his accomplishments and his career, it’s easy to say, ‘This is the way I’ve done it,’ ” manager Craig Counsell said. “And Kyle’s real gift is that he’s just open, and he’s willing to make those adjustments and make changes. And that’s why you end up in a place like this.”

It has been an up-and-down season for Hendricks. He recorded a 12.00 ERA in his first five starts before landing on the 15-day IL (lower back strain) amid his struggles.

He returned earlier than originally planned, as the injury bug swept through the Cubs’ pitching staff, and put together a strong one-run, five-inning outing in Pittsburgh. But the execution issue that plagued him early on returned the next start. He surrendered seven earned runs to the Pirates and was demoted to the bullpen shortly after.

The Cubs hoped the move, in addition to strengthening the rotation while Hendricks honed his mechanics, would help put him in attack mode by the nature of the new role.

When Ben Brown (neck) and Jordan Wicks (strained right oblique) landed on the IL, another opportunity in the rotation opened up.

“Having two young guys go out is tough,” Hendricks said. “You never want to see that, especially two of our best pitchers this year. So it shouldn’t happen to be back in there. But take advantage of it, just tried to do what I could for the team.”

Hendricks’ eight strikeouts were his most in a game since May 16, 2021 at Detroit.

“That goes to Miggy,” Hendricks said. “Miggy’s been so dialed in. He’s been calling such a good game, and it’s been allowing me to get out of my own way, in a way.”

Hendricks’ curveball accounted for 17% of the pitches he threw Wednesday, according to Statcast, well above his high-water mark in any other start this year.

He also reached a career milestone, surpassing 1,500 innings pitched for the Cubs, which put him on an exclusive list that includes only five others in the expansion era (since 1961): Fergie Jenkins, Rick Reu-schel, Greg Maddux, Carlos Zambrano and Bill Hands.

When Hendricks walked off the mound, after recording the second out of the sixth inning, Cubs fans sent him off with a standing ovation.

“I think it’s respect as much as anything,” Counsell said. “They understand what Kyle has been through, and so to have it happen was really cool.”

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