WASHINGTON — There was a Twitter poll that made the rounds Thursday, leading into Game 5 of the division series between the Cubs and Nationals, and it blew up in the face of the smart-alecky media nudnik who created it.
“In what inning,” he wrote — OK, fine, I wrote — “will Joe Maddon prematurely lift Kyle Hendricks tonight?”
The choices were the sixth, the fifth and even earlier than that, and by the time about 1,300 people had responded, 43 percent were foreseeing an extra-early hook from Maddon.
But don’t blame them. I’m the one who offered up a faulty premise. I didn’t ask if Maddon would pull Hendricks too soon — as he infamously did in Game 7 of last year’s World Series — but when he would do it.
As it turned out, Maddon did pull Hendricks before the fifth inning. Yet he stayed with the struggling right-hander quite a bit longer than a lot of managers would have.
It’s almost like Maddon wasn’t pulling our legs at all before the game when he said: “I think you’ve got to give Kyle a little more leeway tonight based on the cachet that he’s built. Listen, there’s no sixth game. Last [World Series], there was no eighth game. You have to try to make your best guess.”
The best-guess approach is what hitters typically take to the plate against the 27-year-old Hendricks, who threw seven shutout innings, allowing only two hits, in his victory to open this series. But something was off in his performance from the start of Game 5. A simple way to look at it: Normally known for his pinpoint location, Hendricks was leaving the ball up.
The second inning turned dark in a hurry for the Cubs. Daniel Murphy hit Hendricks’ first pitch over the fence in right. Michael Taylor later put what seemed at the time like a back-breaking three-run homer over the wall.
I don’t know about you, but at 4-1 in the second I just assumed Hendricks’ night was over. More than that, I thought it should be.
But give Maddon credit for sticking with his guy for four innings, and give Hendricks a tip of the cap for surviving that long. He didn’t look like the guy who outdueled the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS clincher last October. He didn’t look like the guy who would’ve won Game 7 against the Indians if only his manager had let him. He looked like a skinny pitcher who, without a great many natural gifts, was merely trying to hold things together.
“I’m not the guy that’s going to go out there and show all the emotion and throw 98,” he said earlier in the week. “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.”
Mostly, the results have been extraordinary during Hendricks’ time in the big leagues, all with the Cubs. His career regular-season ERA of 2.94 is second among active pitchers with at least 75 starts, behind only Kershaw’s.
Hendricks came into Game 5 with a 1.98 ERA in eight postseason starts. He might never see that number again. He also came in having allowed six or fewer hits in 24 starts during the regular season, but Thursday he allowed nine hits — believe it or not, his most in any game since July of 2015.
We can all agree it was a strange night for Hendricks. There’s plenty of reason to be confident such a night won’t come about again for him any time soon.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.