By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — When Wrigley Field rises Friday night for its most anticipated game ever, the fabled ballpark will work itself into a frenzy.
The coolest guy in the ballpark will be the man walking to the mound. Nobody can keep calm like Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks. Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” will play as anticipation builds through the Friendly Confines, a fitting tune for Hendricks’ demeanor.
Even manager Joe Maddon marvels at his pitcher’s approach.
“The great Walter Hagen on the day that he played, he slowed on everything that he does,” Maddon said. “I would bet that (Hendricks) has the slowest back swing in history. He is just that guy, he’s that guy.”
Maddon’s metaphor applies to the golf course, too, where Hendricks is the best golfer on the team. But he’s had no time for golf this fall.
Before Hendricks became a Cy Young candidate, he was the Cubs’ fifth starter just a few short months ago. It was three years ago this October that he was finishing up his degree at Dartmouth.
“It seems like a lifetime ago, honestly,” Hendricks said as he prepares to take center stage World Series with the Cubs and Indians even 1-1.
The 26-year-old Hendricks is in just his third season of big league baseball and has risen to the ranks of the game’s best pitchers. He looks the part of an Ivy Leaguer, not an ace. His stuff on the mound certainly doesn’t resemble that of Jake Arrieta or Corey Kluber. His fastball tops out at 88, an Aroldis Chapman change-up.
Hendricks made the adjustment this season of mixing his fastball, sinker and change-up at nearly an identical rate, creating deception with his pitches. His curveball, which has been used less than 10 percent of the time this season, is an out pitch. Hendricks’ repertoire has helped him elevate to this extraordinary level few could’ve envisioned.
Even Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein joked that if he was told in spring training that Hendricks would be pitching Game 2 of the NLDS, he would’ve feared mass casualty in the rotation. But the greater of circumstances occurred during the Cubs’ magical 2016 season — Hendricks came into his own.
Perhaps the smartest player in baseball, Hendricks has found a way to go from crafty to dominating. Another key was not overthinking on the mound and minimizing his bright mind to simple thoughts. And the greatest alteration in his game came in self-belief.
“It took me a long time to fall into this mindset,” Hendricks admitted. “You can find yourself falling out of it and falling back into it. A lot of it has to do with confidence.”
And that’s how Hendricks gets zoned in for each start.
Every player has a different pregame routine. Arrieta works his Pilates machine before getting zoned in with that laser focus. Hendricks doesn’t need more than his own cool personality.
Friday’s Game 3 at Wrigley Field will present interesting conditions for pitching. The wind is expected to be blowing out at 20 miles per hour, even gusting up to 40. It will be a hitters’ night at the Friendly Confines. That’s where Hendricks comes into play.
Hendricks forced ground balls at a 48.4 percent rate this season, and has a home run-to-fly ball rate of just 9.3 percent, good for third in baseball. His Game 3 foe, Josh Tomlin, was third-worst in home runs per nine innings at 1.86 and fourth-worst in HR/FB at 17.7 percent.
One could think the Cubs have the edge on the mound for Game 3 of the World Series.
“I’m just going to take advantage of it,” Hendricks said. “I mean, how often do you get these opportunities? You dream of it as a kid.”
Once Hendricks arrives at the ballpark, his brainiac mind will be centered on the simple thoughts that lead him to dominating hitters. He now has the confidence of an ace, allowing his arsenal to thrive without mental disruption.
Anticipation will rise when “Sweet Emotion” plays and the Cubs take to Wrigley Field for Game 3 of the World Series. The old ballpark hasn’t seen a stage like this in ages.
Hendricks will be locked in with a demeanor would make Walter Hagen blush.