WASHINGTON — For the more traditional connoisseur, this particular vintage of the National League Division Series has been a thing of beauty. If the game’s grip-and-rip offensive style represents modern art, then the Nationals and Cubs have provided a classical contrast, with the outcomes shaped from the mound.
But dominance hasn’t come only in the form of high velocity, a commodity that has wrecked arms but nonetheless has been sought after like gold bars. Consider Kyle Hendricks, the oft-overlooked master whom the Cubs sent to the mound for Thursday night’s deciding fifth game.
Hendricks, 27, owned a 1.98 ERA in the postseason entering Game 5. In his last four postseason starts, he had allowed only one run. His resume includes starting Game 7 of last year’s World Series, a contest the Cubs ultimately won to brush away the darkness they had experienced since 1908.
But relying on guile and precision means that the righthander continues to stay beneath the radar, which the Dartmouth-educated pitcher doesn’t seem to mind.
“I’m not the guy that’s going to go out there and show all the emotion and throw 98,” Hendricks said. “That’s what the fans love, and that’s fine with me. I just love going out there and competing, especially with this group of guys and doing whatever it takes to win. That’s all I care about.”
Hendricks, nicknamed “The Professor,” has performed just fine without the hype. Consider his mastery in Game 1 of this NLDS, when he outdueled the electrifying Stephen Strasburg. Hendricks allowed two hits in seven shutout innings against the Nationals, who struggled to make solid contact despite fastballs that reached the plate slower than some of Strasburg’s changeups.
And that was with a slight uptick in velocity for Hendricks in the postseason. The added oomph, however, has made a bigger impact on his changeup, perhaps his most dangerous weapon.
“It’s more the difference between my fastball and my changeup is where it comes into play,” Hendricks said. “When my velo starts creeping up, it helps that out.”
The Nationals already had seen that effect firsthand.
“He does a good job of getting you in between,” Nationals catcher Matt Wieters said. “I think we’ll probably need to do a better job of being able to be aggressive on a pitch we’re looking for and not kind of worry about trying to hit both his fastball and a changeup, because he plays them both off each other well.”
What Hendricks’ fastball lacks in sizzle — it averaged 85.8 mph in the regular season — it makes up for in movement. And he has harnessed pinpoint command of that late action.
“The thing about Kyle that he does a really good job of, it’s the two sides of the plate,” Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “He kind of can change the shape of his fastball as well, too. So sometimes he’ll bring one off the hip and other times he’ll straighten it out in the air. Or he’ll start the one away that’s a strike and walk you off the plate as a lefthanded hitter or keep it on there. And he’s got an elite changeup; that, you know, it’s just tough to see.”
Entering Game 5, the Nationals were hitting .130 in the series to the Cubs’ .159. The teams totaled only 34 hits, with Cubs manager Joe Maddon calling it “a classically old-school kind of series.”
And nobody has been more classical or old school than Hendricks.
“We have to make better adjustments because we haven’t performed well against lower-velocity, control-type pitchers,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “But the law of averages is on our side tonight. I told you I believe in the law of averages. The law of averages is on our side.”