Tuesday September 13th, 2016

One pitch separated the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks from history and another made-for-TV moment for Chicago in 2016. But while the righthander saw his no-hitter bid against the Cardinals get broken up by the first batter of the ninth inning, his sterling effort brought the Cubs that much closer to a National League Central title, as the team dropped St. Louis, 4–1, in the opener of a three-game set at Busch Stadium.

The season’s lone no-hitter belongs to Hendricks’s rotation-mate, Jake Arrieta, who blanked the Reds back on April 22. But through eight innings against the Cardinals, the 26-year-old Californian looked all but certain to join Arrieta in what’s been a truly exclusive club this year. As it is, Hendricks becomes the fourth pitcher this year to lose a no-hitter in the ninth inning—joining the Marlins’ Adam Conley, the Rangers’ Colby Lewis and the Giants’ Matt Moore—and the second in the last week to see his efforts go up in smoke, though the circumstances were wildly different. On Saturday night, Dodgers lefty Rich Hill took a perfect game through seven innings but was pulled after retiring his 21st consecutive batter, with Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts citing injury and pitch count concerns as his reason to remove the oft-hurt 36-year-old.

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No such worries existed for Hendricks, who breezed through the Cardinals’ lineup. He faced the minimum through seven innings, with his lone mistake—a one-out walk to Yadier Molina in the second—immediately erased on a double play off the bat of Jedd Gyorko. Along the way, he was helped by some tremendous defense. In the sixth inning, Molina hit a groundball deep to the left side. Shortstop Addison Russell, playing on the outfield grass, got to it with a sliding stop, popped up and fired a strike to first base to nab the Cardinals’ catcher for the first out of the frame. The very next batter, Jeremy Hazelbaker, lofted a flyball into foul ground in right, where Jason Heyward tracked it down and caught it while falling into the stands to record the second out.

While Hendricks won that matchup with Hazelbaker thanks to Heyward’s spectacular catch, there was nothing the Gold Glover could do in the ninth, when the Cardinals’ rookie outfielder stepped up as the first hitter of the inning and blasted a 1–1 pitch into the stands in right. As Hazelbaker rounded the bases to a standing ovation, Hendricks saw his night come to an end, but only after a bizarre interlude in which manager Joe Maddon was ejected after arguing with home plate umpire Joe West—who was apparently eager to remind the crowd that, yes, he was there—then went ahead and made a pitching change anyway. Closer Aroldis Chapman came into the game to get the final three outs, sandwiched around a walk.

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Despite the sour ending, it was a stellar night for Hendricks, who needed just 96 pitches to get through eight-plus innings. The righty allowed just two base runners before Hazelbaker’s homer, both on walks, and didn’t allow a runner to reach second base. Topping out at 91.4 mph—Hendricks is as soft a tosser as they come, with a four-seam fastball average of just 89.7 mph—he flummoxed the Cardinals with a sinker-changeup combo, tossing in his curveball and cutter for variety. He punched out seven batters on the night, six swinging, with the changeup drawing nine swings-and-misses. As is his style, Hendricks used his sinker to great effect, getting nine groundouts on the night.

While Hendricks wasn’t able to match Arrieta and give the Cubs another no-hitter, his outing nonetheless brought the Cubs that much closer to a division title that has been all but assured since the All-Star break. With the win, Chicago now holds a gargantuan 17-game advantage over St. Louis in the NL Central and reduced its magic number to clinch the division to three games. Wins on Tuesday and Wednesday, then, would officially lock up the first NL Central crown for the Cubs since 2008 in the home of their hated rivals.

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Should the champagne and Budweiser flow in St. Louis on Wednesday afternoon, Hendricks is sure to be at the center of it. Amid a Cy Young-worthy season in which he leads the majors in ERA at 2.03 and has won 15 games, he has been an integral part of a Chicago team steaming toward a 100-win season and a second straight trip to the playoffs. And though he was unable to make history on Monday night, Hendricks will hope to lead the Cubs to an even bigger honor: the first World Series champions in the North Side since 1908.

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