Two hours before Kyle Hendricks stepped on the mound for his first big-league start in nearly 11 months, Chicago Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy outlined one goal he had for the veteran.
It didn’t center on numbers — pitching line or velocity — but rather how Hendricks would respond to adversity Thursday night against the New York Mets.
“Anybody can pitch when things are going well,” Hottovy said. “I want to see him, if he gets out of whack mechanically on a pitch or he loses a couple, how quick he can make those adjustments. When he’s at his best, he’ll miss one and then lock it right back in right away.
“Obviously we’re not expecting him to be midseason form, peak Kyle, but his ability to make those adjustments and stick to what he needs to do in those moments is going to be key.
“It’s been almost a year since he pitched in a game here. He’s going to be pretty excited and how can you handle those moments? And how can you handle the ability to make those adjustments when you need to?”
The Mets tested Hendricks early in his first start since July 5, loading the bases in the first inning and taking a 1-0 lead on a Brett Baty sacrifice fly. Hendricks quickly bounced back with a perfect second, featuring two strikeouts.
He started strong again in the third with two outs, including another strikeout. But the Mets responded with four consecutive singles to score three runs and take a 4-1 lead; one run was unearned because of a Seiya Suzuki throwing error.
Hendricks again settled in the next inning, retiring the Mets in order in the fourth. He came back out for the fifth and struck out Francisco Lindor before allowing a single to Jeff McNeil and hitting Pete Alonso with a pitch. Brandon Hughes relieved him and allowed one runner to score on an error.
The Mets made Hendricks work, forcing him to throw 86 pitches to get through 4⅓ innings in which he allowed five runs (three earned), six hits and two walks and struck out five.
“It’s almost like a breath of fresh air when you get to see him around and what he’s meant to this organization,” Hottovy said. “I’ve seen him almost since he made his debut here, so it’s been fun to get to see his career. And now to have him back, you feel like you have the pieces to your puzzle back together.”
Nick Madrigal became the odd man out in the Cubs infield mix with Hendricks’ return.
The Cubs had carried an extra position player while using a four-man rotation since Hayden Wesneski’s demotion to Triple-A Iowa on May 15. Hendricks coming off the injured list Thursday meant the bench needed to be trimmed.
Madrigal was the casualty, optioned to Iowa as the corresponding move.
Manager David Ross said Madrigal took the news professionally and they had a good conversation in which Ross outlined his vision for Madrigal’s future. It starts with regular playing time in Triple A at second and third base.
“We knew where we saw him and we knew where he stood in his thoughts,” Ross said. “Nick is a really high-level player. We want to get him back to the best version of him because that’s when we’re going to be at our best.”
Madrigal’s fit on the Cubs roster took a hit when they signed shortstop Dansby Swanson to a seven-year, $177 million deal in December, forcing Nico Hoerner to move back to second base. Madrigal spent the rest of the offseason learning third base to improve his defensive flexibility and create a path toward playing time. Bench coach Andy Green traveled to Arizona to work with Madrigal for a week.
Madrigal held his own at third in 16 starts. The Cubs took note of how he continued to put in work defensively.
“The thing I’m most proud of for him is the way he took to third base,” Ross said. “He’s played a great third base, really clean over there. That’s hard to do. That’s kind of gone unnoticed publicly. I just keep marveling at the ability for him to make so many different types of plays and the arm strength and how he’s built that up and the way his body’s moving.”
Madrigal’s contact-hitter profile provides value when he’s locked in. During his two seasons with the White Sox before hamstring surgery and a trade across town, Madrigal showed he can get on base enough without a high walk rate. That hasn’t happened enough in a Cubs uniform.
The team hopes he can get his timing back with regular at-bats at Iowa. In 98 plate appearances this year, Madrigal hit .247 with a .286 on-base percentage and 63 OPS+.
Patrick Wisdom and Miles Mastrobuoni will continue to get most of the playing time at third base with Christopher Morel seeing most of his at-bats as the designated hitter.