Cubs lose to Pirates: Kyle Hendricks tries to put 2021 behind him, but loss is reminiscent of struggles

PITTSBURGH — The first fastball Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks threw floated up over the middle of the plate. No harm. Pirates leadoff man Daniel Vogelbach watched it for a strike. But it was a sign of things to come.

Hendricks had gotten away from establishing his fastball low in the strike zone last season, the worst of his career. And Hendricks’ start Wednesday was reminiscent of his 2021 struggles. In the Cubs’ 6-2 loss, Hendricks allowed six runs before leaving the game with two outs in the fourth inning. Reflecting his control issues, Hendricks walked four batters.

The data on Hendricks’ secondary pitches has been better so far this year. He’s added vertical movement to his curveball. Catcher Willson Contreras called Hendricks’ changeup “completely different” from last season. But those improvements only give him an advantage — resulting in performances like Hendricks’ 5 1/3 innings one one-run ball on Opening Day — when he’s establishing his fastball down.

If the Cubs’ rotation is going to sustain the kind of success it had the first time through — each starter threw at least five innings and allowed one run or fewer — the aggressive approach the team has been emphasizing has to start with Hendricks.

That’s why he was so bullish in the spring, regardless of results, about executing his fastball down and away.

On Wednesday, Hendricks seemed to be fighting for the feel for that pitch all outing. And when Hendricks’ fastball isn’t effective, the rest of his pitches lose their impact. Pirates five-hole hitter Ben Gamel could sit on Hendricks’ changeup when he came up in the first inning with two runners on and two outs.

Gamel watched a curveball for a strike. On the second pitch of the at-bat, he golfed a changeup into the right field stands. The Pirates took a 3-1 lead on Gamel’s home run, and they never trailed again.

The next time Gamel stepped up to the plate, Hendricks threw him all fastballs. Gamel walked in five pitches.

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