Nico Hoerner had done the math even before Kris Bubic had made his MLB debut.
“His second start would be against us,” Hoerner said of the Royals pitcher last week.
On Wednesday, Hoerner and Bubic, former Stanford teammates, reunited at Kauffman Stadium. The Cubs’ 6-1 win over the Royals marked the first time they faced each other in the big leagues.
“One of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had,” Hoerner said. “Just so happy for him in that the Royals are really giving him a chance.”
The parallels in Hoerner and Bubic’s careers began the summer before their freshman year of college, when Hoerner said they played on the same team, and continue beyond their three years at Stanford. By 2018, their final season of college ball, Hoerner and Bubic were clear leaders among the Cardinal position players and pitchers, respectively.
“You could coach 25 years,” said Stanford director of baseball David Esquer said in a phone interview, “and never get two guys to lead the rest of the team like that without pushing them yourself. Both those guys are just so self-motivated.”
Esquer, a former Cardinal player and assistant coach, returned to Stanford ahead of the 2018 season as the head coach. He was quickly struck by Hoerner and Bubic's work ethic.
Hoerner embraced the hardest drills Esquer threw at them and would rope his teammates into taking extra ground balls. Bubic would finish up in the weight room and then add a 30-minute bullpen session to his workload.
“I call them program changers,” Esquer said, “because when your best players are your hardest workers, they change the whole culture of everyone around them.”
That year, Stanford won its first Pac-12 title since 2004. A week later, the team gathered in the clubhouse to watch the MLB Draft together.
The Cubs selected Hoerner No. 24 overall, and Bubic went to the Royals 16 picks later, in the supplemental first round.
“The roar that came out of that room when both those names were called was pretty exciting,” Esquer said.
Once they were in the minor leagues, both Hoerner and Bubic skipped steps to get to the show. Last season, Hoerner became the first player in the 2018 draft class to reach the majors. The Cubs gave him the call after injuries to middle infielders Javier Báez and Addison Russell. The highest level Hoerner had played up to that point was Double-A. He ended up playing 20 games for the Cubs in September.
Then this season, the Royals brought in Bubic for his major league debut, straight out of Single-A ball.
“That was pretty amazing when I got that FaceTime from him,” Hoerner said.
Cubs manager David Ross made sure Hoerner got the opportunity to face his former teammate on Wednesday. Ross started Hoerner in center field, in what he called a “little bit outside of the box feel.” Hoerner usually plays second base for the Cubs, but Ross also wanted to fit David Bote in the lineup.
“He's got a close relationship with guy on the mound,” Ross said of Hoerner before the game. “Sometimes that takes that competitive edge up a little bit. He's been having some really good at bats for us.”
Hoerner finally got his chance to face Bubic in the third inning. He gave Bubic a nod and stepped into the box. Hoerner fouled off the first pitch the Royals rookie threw him, a fastball down the middle. Bubic grinned as received a new ball.
Hoerner would go on to fly out that at-bat. Then, in the sixth inning he smoked a ground ball to the left side. But Royals third baseman Maikel Franco fielded it cleanly and threw him out.
“To be honest, I'm just glad I didn't walk him, and I challenged him,” Bubic said. “… It was definitely a fun moment to share on a stage like that."