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CHICAGO — Kyle Hendricks is the thread that has tied the last few eras of Cubs baseball together. He arrived during a rebuild a decade ago, climbed to baseball’s mountaintop with the World Series triumph and is now a veteran for an overhauled squad aiming to get back into the postseason.
On Thursday night, the last man standing from the 2016 championship team returned to the rotation, following a nearly year-long recovery from a right shoulder issue. The Cubs were dealt a 10-1 defeat to the Mets, but Hendricks’ presence in the clubhouse and, more importantly, on the mound again was a welcomed sight.
“It’s been a long road back for him,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “It just feels like things are back to normal, just seeing him around.”
The Cubs expected rust from the 33-year-old Hendricks, who was off the injured list and pitching in a Major League game for the first time since July 5 of last season. A capsular tear in his right shoulder ended a trying season prematurely in 2022 and Hendricks’ path back included altering his arm path and tackling a velocity program, beyond the required rest, recovery and rehab.
Ross quipped that this was not just The Professor, but a “stronger professor,” given how the pitcher has looked in workouts behind the scenes and the improved velocity numbers in his recent outings. Hendricks’ health is no longer the question. What matters now is seeing how his precision-based arsenal looks after all the hours put in during the long absence.
“I’m not expecting him to be midseason form, peak Kyle,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before Thursday’s game. “It’s been almost a year since pitching a game here. He’s going to be excited.”
Hendricks admitted as much, noting that he found himself taking extra moments to soak in the atmosphere as he prepared for the first pitch of his first start in 324 days. The pitcher said there was a “long build-up” mentally to this day, following all the peaks and valleys of a monotonous rehab schedule.
“It was just so fulfilling to finally get back out there on that field,” Hendricks said, “[and to] see the fans, run out on the field with my teammates, just the little things. I took it all in, really. You don’t take that for granted.”
The nerves associated with that reintroduction to Wrigley Field were evident in the first inning, when Hendricks uncharacteristically issued two walks. He also allowed a leadoff single to Brandon Nimmo, who came around to score later in the frame. In the third, Hendricks allowed four consecutive two-out singles in a three-run outburst for the Mets.
Hendricks walked off the hill after 4 1/3 innings, but the fans in attendance who understood the circumstances offered warm cheers for the longest-tenured Cub. He was charged with three earned runs (five runs total), ending with five strikeouts, two walks and six hits allowed.
“I’m sure that’s a good one he can put behind him,” Ross said. “Building off that is going to be key for him and for us.”
There were flashes of the Hendricks that the Cubs have come to know and appreciate.
The crafty righty had a handful of ugly swings on deceptive pitches that danced around the zone. Nimmo tried to halt his swing at a changeup in the third, but the temptation proved too much, and he struck out. Francisco Lindor offered a feeble pass at a four-seamer that ran beyond his barrel for another punchout in the fifth.
On a chilly day with the wind blowing in, Hendricks reached back and touched 89 mph with his fastball a few times. He was up to 90 mph in some of his recent rehab outings with Triple-A Iowa. That may not seem like much for the average big leaguer these days, but it puts Hendricks back in a range he has not seen in a few seasons.
“A guy like Kyle, he’s the definition of a pitcher,” Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said. “He’s out there and he knows how to pinpoint [pitches]. He knows how to mix and match, mix speeds, try to do everything he can to keep guys off-balance.”
That version of Hendricks arrived in both the second and fourth innings, when he needed 11 and 12 pitches, respectively, to face the minimum. Those short bursts served as “bright spots” for Ross, whose rotation could use the kind of stabilizer that Hendricks has been for the staff for so long.
“You feel like you have a piece to your puzzle back together,” Hottovy said. “Regardless of the results, regardless of what he does, having him back around, having him around the team, having around players to talk about pitching and talk about the game, it’s just valuable to have.”