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Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks’ 88 pitches were just about perfect

For 42,000 screaming people inside Wrigley Field, the many thousands in the engorged area and millions of Chicago Cubs fans worldwide, Game 6 of the 2016 National League Championship Series was the most important game the franchise had played in decades.

For Kyle Hendricks, it was his 33rd start of the 2016 season.

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"The outside forces felt different," Hendricks said. "You felt the buzz around the stadium, definitely the energy. It was loud in there. But, at the end of the day, I didn't feel much different. All I was trying to do was simplify and make good pitches."

He made many. The lanky, stoic right-hander threw 88 nearly perfect pitches Saturday night to vault the Cubs into the World Series. On the first pitch, he yielded a single. On the last, he yielded a single. For the 86 pitches in between, he was unconquered.

The 26-year-old Newport Beach native and Capistrano Valley High graduate never walked a Dodger over 71/3 innings in a 5-0 victory. He hardly fell behind in counts. He did not touch 90 mph once. But he faced 23 Dodgers hitters and recorded 22 outs, forcing them into uncomfortable swing after uncomfortable swing.

"He was hitting his spots," Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler said. "It's tough to hit that guy when he's hitting his spots."

Hendricks hits his spots often. He throws fastballs, curveball, changeups, and his success depends on throwing them where he wants, rather than overpowering opponents.

In May, the Cubs catching coach, Mike Borzello, approached Hendricks after his worst start of the season — four runs in 51/3 innings — in Milwaukee.

Borzello is the same man widely credited with teaching Clayton Kershaw the slider seven years earlier. This time, Borzello told Hendricks he needed to throw more four-seam fastballs, to counteract the two-seam sinker hitters had increasingly attacked.

Hendricks began to do so in his next start. Since then, in 149 innings, he had a 1.75 earned-run average, nearly two runs lower than his mark to that point. He led the majors in ERA.

Adding to the overwhelming rush of serendipity surrounding this game, the man Hendricks was traded for, retired starter Ryan Dempster, was in attendance, hugging Hendricks in the outfield afterward. Dempster works in the Cubs front office. While starring for a tanking team four summers ago, he held no-trade rights, and he wanted to be traded to the Dodgers.

But they would not cede top pitching prospect Allen Webster, and, on the day of the deadline, Dempster decided to allow a trade to Texas. A soft-tossing, Dartmouth-educated Class-A pitching prospect named Kyle Hendricks was the return.

Hendricks represents the embodiment of a mantra Cubs Manager Joe Maddon has hammered into his players for two seasons: Do simple better.

Before this start, Hendricks described how he handled jams: "Just simple thoughts." He'd never think about the possibility of being removed from the game.

"All you have to do is focus on making a good pitch," he said. "And, if he comes to get the ball from you, then you pass it off to the next guy."

When the time came, that happened. Sober as ever, Hendricks handed the baseball to Maddon after a Josh Reddick eighth-inning single and walked back to his dugout.

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A few of his teammates said they noticed a rare grin.

"He'll throw a shutout and then walk off the field with a smirk on his face," Fowler said.

"But you know he's happy because he smiled today."

Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura

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