Kyle Hendricks spent the first weeks of 2017 trying to recapture the stuff he dealt so easily a year ago while posting the best ERA in the majors.
Sometime in the third inning against Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, everything sort of clicked. It had to if the Chicago Cubs wanted to have any chance of beating Gerrit Cole.
Hendricks limited the Pirates to four singles over six innings and the Chicago's bullpen did the rest as the Cubs took advantage of another error by Pittsburgh's shaky distance to hold on for a 1-0 victory. Hendricks struck out three and walked two in easily his best performance of the young season for the defending World Series champions.
While Hendricks (2-1) isn't ready to say his early struggles are behind him, he took a step forward as the Chicago won for the sixth time in seven games.
"It's just one start," Hendricks said. "It's not a 'back' thing. I'm not in the zone, dialed in like I was last year. That was a completely different feeling and sensation (but) felt a lot better. It's more on track."
Hendricks became the first Cub in nearly 80 years to lead the majors in ERA (2.13) last season but took the mound on Tuesday with the number at 6.19. It dropped to 4.50 after he kept Pittsburgh off balance with his mix of breaking balls and changeup to go with a fastball that only reaches the mid-80s but can find the corners when he's on.
"He looked much more like he did last year," Chicago manager Joe Maddon said.
Chicago's bullpen did the rest, with Wade Davis working a perfect ninth for his fifth save. Addison Russell doubled in the second off Cole (1-3) and scored when second baseman Alen Hanson airmailed first base on a Jason Heyward grounder, the Pirates' major league-high 20th error this season. They've also allowed 15 unearned runs, the most in the big leagues.
"I noticed that the runner wasn't running a 100 percent," Hanson said. "I just relaxed a little and tried to make the play. When I noticed that he was almost there, I released the ball and just threw the ball away."
The miscue spoiled a masterful outing by Cole. He struck out eight without issuing a walk and retired 14 of his final 15 batters. It wasn't enough for Pittsburgh, which has lost six of eight.
Cole only needed 78 pitches to get through seven innings but was pulled for pinch hitter Jose Osuna with the tying run on third and two outs in the bottom of the seventh against Chicago reliever Koji Uehara. Osuna flied out and Pittsburgh never threatened again.
"Guys are putting good swings on the ball," Cole said. "It's just the way this stuff goes sometimes. There's gonna be ups and downs throughout the whole year. You can't get frustrated."