Kyle Hendricks looked much better, but it's too soon for the Cubs to rejoice

The veteran pitcher delivered his best start of the season Sunday, a first step toward getting his season back on track.
Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin Berl/GettyImages

Despite more late-inning antics from beleaguered reliever Adbert Alzolay, the Chicago Cubs held on for a 5-4 series-clinching victory on Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The win improved the team's road record to 11 and helped them keep pace with the first-place Brewers, heading into a new week just a half-game behind Milwaukee in the standings.

Filling in for Jameson Taillon, whose next start was pushed back due to back tightness, Kyle Hendricks turned in an imperfect, but strong outing - a major improvement on what we'd seen from him to this point in 2024. The veteran gave Craig Counsell five innings of one-run ball, allowing just two hits and striking out five while walking four.

Most of his 94 pitches were change-ups and sinkers, culminating in just three balls Statcast classified as 'hard hit' into fair territory. But after getting lit up all season long, this felt like a big win and a major step in the right direction for Hendricks.

“There were a couple of points there where I lost it and sprayed a couple of balls, but for the most part, I was in my mechanics,” Hendricks said. “I was feeling my lanes. I was back down in the zone a little bit. My changeups were down. So it’s a lot closer. That’s what it’s telling me. It’s just the consistency now.”

Cubs rotation has been stellar, even with Kyle Hendricks at his worst

The Cubs starting rotation drove the team's success in the season's first six weeks. Without guys like Javier Assad, Ben Brown and Hayden Wesneski stepping up in the wake of injuries to Taillon, Justin Steele and Jordan Wicks, the team's outlook could be drastically different.

Hendricks' ineffectiveness did the staff no favors in the season's first month and, even with Sunday's bounceback effort taken into account, he still carries a 10.04 ERA in six starts. Assuming Taillon returns this week as planned, the rotation will be in a solid spot with Steele, Assad, NL Cy Young and Rookie of the Year candidate Shota Imanaga joining Taillon and Hendricks.

The bigger question, perhaps, is what will Hendricks look like in his next start, which could come this weekend at Wrigley against these same Pirates. Hopefully, that will give him a leg up, given Pittsburgh isn't exactly a group of world-beaters at the plate (they rank 27th in OPS entering Monday). For now, chalk Sunday up as a positive, but I need to see some more before I feel confident turning to him every five days.