Nico Hoerner shouldn't be viewed as a savior, but debut proves he can help Cubs reach October

Nico Hoerner shouldn't be viewed as a savior, but debut proves he can help Cubs reach October

With Monday’s game against the Padres came clashing waves of emotion between pregame news and the in-game action for the Cubs.

Before the game, the Cubs told reporters in San Diego that Javier Báez is unlikely to play again this regular season due to a hairline fracture in his left thumb. However, Báez could return during the postseason, should the Cubs get there.

The Cubs announced Báez's injury on Saturday, but the shortstop’s visit with a hand specialist Monday confirmed the diagnosis. This, combined with losing three out of four games against the Brewers over the weekend, created a less-than-ideal start to the week for a Cubs team in a heated playoff race.

The vibes all changed once Monday’s game got underway, courtesy of 2018 first-round pick and incumbent Cubs shortstop, Nico Hoerner.

With both Báez and Addison Russell on the mend, the Cubs called up Hoerner from Double-A to fill the team’s vacancy at shortstop. Hoerner, who has just 89 minor league games to his name, didn’t disappoint. The 22-year-old finished the night an impressive 3-for-5, a line that featured a triple and four RBIs, all while playing impressive defense at shortstop.

One game is an incredibly small sample size, but Hoerner’s debut demonstrated a special element that he can bring to the Cubs offense down the stretch: putting the ball in play.

Including Monday’s 10-2 win over the Padres, 50.5 percent (355 of 703) of Cubs runs scored this season have come via home runs. This, combined with the fact that their hitters tend to expand the strike zone, has led to an up-and-down showing by the Cubs offense this season.

Hoerner put the ball in play in each plate appearance Monday. It’s unfair to expect him to rack up three hits a night, but his ability to make contact will change the dynamic of the Cubs offense. It’s better to keep the line moving than stalling it with a strikeout, essentially. Take Hoerner’s first MLB plate appearance, where he recorded his first big league hit.

Despite being down 0-2 in the count, Hoerner fought off a tough pitch — a slider diving down and away — and got the bat on it. He went with the pitch rather than attempting to pull it, going the other way for a bloop single into right field.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon has preached time after time that the key to his team’s offensive success is to stay within the strike zone and use the opposite field. The Cubs have shown flashes of this in 2019, though not nearly as much as one would like.

Hoerner, on the other hand, did both on Monday, his first professional game above the Double-A level. This is more of a compliment towards him than it is criticism of the Cubs offense. Not many players one year removed from college can put together the type of at-bats that Hoerner did Monday — especially those with as little professional experience as him.

What happens next obviously remains to be seen, but Hoerner will likely start every game at shortstop that Russell misses. The latter is in concussion protocol after getting hit in the helmet with a pitch on Sunday, though how much time Russell will miss is not yet clear.

It’s premature to look ahead to the postseason — the Cubs must get there first — but what they do with Hoerner will be interesting if they clinch a spot. According to MLB rules, any player on a team’s 40-man roster as of 10:59 p.m. CT on Aug. 31 is eligible for the postseason.

The Cubs didn’t add Hoerner, of course, to the 40-man roster until Monday. However, there is a loophole to the aforementioned rule, if the Cubs reach the postseason and want Hoerner on the roster.

Teams can add players in Hoerner’s position to a postseason roster via a petition to the Commissioner’s Office if:

-the player was in the organization on Aug. 31 and
-is replacing someone on the injured list who has served the minimum amount of time for activation (ex: a player on the 10-day IL who has served 10 days there)

The Cubs can get Hoerner on their postseason roster using a player such as Brandon Morrow. Morrow has been on the 60-day injured list since May 2, so he matches the above criteria.

Báez is set to spend the rest of the regular season rehabbing his fractured left thumb, all with the hope of returning in October for a Cubs postseason run. Knowing how competitive Báez is, though, one would think he'll do everything he can to make it back to the Cubs by October.

Even if Báez returns in time, the Cubs will have an interesting decision to make. If Hoerner continues to hit, he could be a potent weapon in the postseason, especially when considering his speed and defensive skill and versatility (he can play second base and center field, too).

Hoerner has just one game under his big league belt, albeit an impressive one. Whether he keeps up this success is to be determined, but based on the sample size at hand, Hoerner seems capable of helping the Cubs reach the postseason, even if he doesn't get the chance to play in October himself.

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Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

All it took was one swing from Matt Carpenter on Thursday to tarnish Craig Kimbrel’s return from the injured list while simultaneously denting the Cubs’ playoff hopes.

With the Cubs and Cardinals tied 10th inning, Carpenter hit an absolute no-doubt home run deep into left center field, giving St. Louis a 5-4 lead that they never relinquished.

“[The pitch] just ran back over the plate, and he drops the barrel at the bottom of the zone really well and put a good swing on it,” Kimbrel said postgame.

The Cubs activated Kimbrel Thursday following a two-week stint on the injured list. And, really, outside of the Carpenter at-bat, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.

Carpenter’s home run was sandwiched between two strikeouts — one with a fastball, one with a knuckle curveball. Still, Thursday’s loss is a gut-punch for the Cubs, as it drops them to four games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central and a game back of the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot.

It also doesn’t help that the Cubs erased a three-run ninth inning deficit, which allowed them to get into extra innings in the first place.

“It’s frustrating,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve been doing everything I can to get back out there and our team battled til the very end. We needed that, and [I’m] pretty disappointed in myself to go out there and give up a home run like that.”

Some way wonder why Kimbrel was pressed into action the same day of his activation. The answer to that, is simple: If not now, then when? With nine games left in the regular season, Kimbrel needs to be pitching.

“Physically I felt great,” Kimbrel said postgame. “The balls coming out of my hand good. I just made a bad pitch.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon echoed a similar sentiment about Kimbrel’s condition on Thursday.

“I was very encouraged, from what I saw yesterday," Maddon said pregame. “I thought he looked pretty normal, and again, when you talk to the guy conversationally, it’s very upbeat."

If Kimbrel sat out Thursday’s game, many would call out Maddon for not using his $43 million arm. Plus, the longer the closer sits, the greater chance there is of him getting rusty.

“If we can get on the field, we’re gonna do everything we can to get out there and help this team win and try and put us in a position to get into the playoffs,” Kimbrel said. “We’re getting down here til the end. We still got a lot of games.”

Nine regular season games remain for the Cubs in 2019. Kimbrel summed up the latest, as big as any yet, as well as one can.

“Tonight was a big game for us,” he said. “We really needed it. [The] season’s not over, we still got a lot of games left. But it definitely would’ve helped. I wish I would’ve pitched a little better.”

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Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

The story could not have followed a more perfect trajectory:

Injured star (Anthony Rizzo) makes a miraculous recovery, hits a big home run in a huge game and helps will his team to victory.

Except for the last part. 

After suffering a nasty-looking ankle injury in Sunday's game, Rizzo was announced as the Cubs' leadoff hitter and first baseman about 20 minutes before first pitch Thursday night and hit a game-tying homer in his second trip to the plate.

It was the only offense the Cubs were able to muster against Jack Flaherty, but they pulled off an epic comeback in the ninth inning — with Javy Baez scoring the game-tying run in his first action since Sept. 1.

That was quickly erased with Matt Carpenter's go-ahead homer off Craig Kimbrel in the top of the 10th inning and the Cardinals went on to win 5-4 and bury the Cubs 4 games back in the division.

But nobody's pointing the finger at Rizzo, who has spent the last four days in a walking boot and was unable to even put weight on his right ankle up until Wednesday when he retired his snack-filled scooter. 

Joe Maddon was planning on being without one of his most important players until the moment Rizzo was out in left field, running and jumping on the grass

Rizzo didn't even know he was going to be able to play until that moment, either.

"You get the questions of waiting a couple more days, but we don't have a couple more days," Rizzo said. "We gotta win now. And I love this team...I love playing. That's what I want to do. It's what I love doing — playing baseball, especially for this team that we're fighting at Wrigley Field in late September to go to the playoffs and that's where all the magic happens."

He exited the game after the fifth inning and immediately went back into the training room to continue treatment. He received a cortisone shot Monday and otherwise has been religiously following the "RICE" treatment plan (rest, ice, compression, elevation), with help from the Cubs medical staff at the ballpark and his wife — "Nurse Emily" — at home.

"I kept saying, 'this ankle doesn't stand a chance,'" Rizzo said. "It's still obviously sore, but it was good enough to play."

Rizzo walked into and out of the Cubs press conference room without the boot and said he felt "good" and was hoping to play Friday, though he admitted he would be smart and let the team know if he was unable to suit up.

Quite the turnaround from a guy who stood at his locker Monday afternoon with his right knee bent and resting on the scooter (which did not yet have tassels or a horn or snacks at that point) and the Robocop-like boot on his ankle. 

"Honestly, when I told you guys [Monday] 'I'll let you know in a few days,' I did not think in a few days I'd be doing this," he said. "I had a positive mindset — 'It's gonna take me three days. Watch, it's gonna take me three days.' And everyone was just kinda like, 'no way.' I believed I was healthy and I am."

Still, even with the made-for-Hollywood return, the Cubs will wake up Friday morning out of a playoff spot for the first time since April 30. 

Thursday could've been an epic, season-altering comeback, but instead, the Cubs are forced to find a way to move on after another gut-punch.

At least they now have Rizzo, Baez and Kimbrel back in the fold, even if they're not all 100 percent.

"It's just all hands on deck," Rizzo said. "We have to win and I think guys want to win and are pushing themselves. Everyone is banged up this time of the year, so it's just mind over matter, really."