25 years later, the Cubs get to see their methodical ace blossom on their team

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks works in the first inning against the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of a National League Division Series on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON D.C. – This time, there is no quick hook. Not in this game, not in this season, and perhaps not in this career.

At 92 pitches after six shutout innings, it appeared Joe Maddon was going to end Kyle Hendricks day. It’s become almost a tradition for the manager and his 27-year old budding ace, from the regular season to his controversial pull in the fifth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

But when Maddon shifted his outfield in the bottom of the seventh of Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Nationals in Washington D.C., he didn’t lift his pitcher. It was such a surprise that the press box announced that Hendricks would be replaced, eventually retracting that when he remained on the mound.

A pair of groundouts – including a bare handed grab on a soft hit down the third base line by Kris Bryant to get Jason Werth – netted a pair of quick outs. The third baseman was charged with a questionable error on a line shot of Michael Taylor but Hendricks wasn’t affected, sriking out  Howie Kendrick with ease to finish off his solid night, walking off the mound with the same poker face that he did when he entered the game.

“This is as good as I’ve seen him. The last — I mean, the last 2 or 3 starts,” said Maddon when asked about this performance compared to some of the others for the Cy Young finalist from a year ago.

What would Kyle say?

“Maybe not best ever but it was up there,” said Hendricks of his performance.

There are two good things about what transpired at Nationals Park on Wednesday. In the now, Hendricks’ gem allowed the Cubs break through for a 3-0 victory over a nearly as impressive Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals to take a 1-0 series lead.

Yet in a more global perspective, it gives the Cubs a chance to watch a true home-grown ace blossom before their eyes. It’s almost happened before but something usually seems to happen, especially with the player that Hendricks most resembles in his style and demeanor: Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.

He started with the Cubs in 1986 and grew into one of the best pitchers in baseball, going seven years with the franchise and helping the Cubs to the 1989 National League East Division title. Yet as he began to enter his prime, winning the Cy Young Award in 1992 with a 20-11 record and an ERA of 2.18, he was on his way out the door in free agency to the Braves. There he would develop into arguably the best pitcher of his generation, as he picked up 194 wins in 11 years with the Braves in helping them to the playoffs in every season.

Maddux was the pitcher who got away, the methodical genius who could have helped the Cubs to a dynasty of their own but instead made the Braves the “Team of the ’90s.” Hendricks doesn’t appear to be going that way.

The 27-year old is entering his prime with his future securely set in Chicago, showing more of his potential with each passing start. Recovering from a hand injury that cost him most of June and July, Hendricks had a 2.19 ERA in his final 13 starts of the season, striking out 72 compared to just 19 walks. Those numbers were even better during five September starts, when the ERA dropped to 2.01 and he walked just five while striking out 29.

It’s why Maddon tabbed Hendricks to start the playoffs over Jon Lester, the appointed Cubs’ ace during this recent run of success. The veteran left-hander said on Wednesday that it was a “Passing of the Torch” in a sense of the ace label from himself to the righty.

Friday was Hendricks’ crowning jewel so far, fanning six against three walks while keeping the majority of his hits on the ground to make for a number of easy plays for his fielders. He surrendered just two hits and none following the second inning while, according to Maddon, finding a way to add more speed to his pitches while not sacrificing his trademark control.

“Because the velocity is ticking up. He’s actually hitting a lot of — I don’t know how accurate their gun is, I don’t know if it’s a little bit hot or not; sometimes I wonder 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, 91,” said Maddon when explaining why this was one of his best performances as a Cub.  “As a hitter when he’s able to do that with that movement and you have to honor that. Plus that, the changeup, it makes him even more effective. You can see his delivery, how well he repeated it, pitch after pitch after pitch.

“He’s such a technician mechanically. You can tell immediately when he’s on top of that, meeting his mechanics.”

What’s best for the Cubs is that he’s doing it now as a member of the team. At last a methodical ace is entering his prime with a team that he build up his skills since he was traded from the Rangers in 2012.

“To get this nod for Game 1, just to try to set the tone for the team is huge,” said Hendricks, who has allowed just one earned run in his last four playoff starts. “I just wanted to go out there, like I said before and just do my part to give my team a chance to win.”

It won’t be the last time he gets to do so. That’s because the Cubs’ newest ace will have his glory days in Chicago.