Before tonight’s game, the Cubs got the fanbase all aflutter with the news that they were calling up Nico Hoerner. Because after Addison Russell entered the concussion protocol, their sole remaining option at the shortstop position was activating Mark Loretta.
With all of 89 professional games under his belt, no one could predict what to expect of the 2018 first round pick. All we knew was that if the Cubs were going to play the last three games like it was still 2014, the least they could do was call up a number one prospect.
Well, after tonight’s game, it’s fair to conclude: the Nico Hoerner era is a resounding success. Or at the very least, a joy to watch.
Even before he came to bat for the first time, Hoerner turned in his first impressive play in the field. On the second batter Kyle Hendricks faced on the evening, Nick Martini blistered a hard hit ball toward shortstop. Hoerner announced his presence with a nifty backhanded stab and threw Martini out.
It was the first of several times the spotlight found Hoerner, a feel-good story who was apparently called up to the major leagues despite suffering from a debilitating case of permanent Blue Steel. Nico celebrated his first nifty defensive play the very next inning by blooping an 0-2 pitch to right field for his first major league hit. It would not be the last.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Although Hoerner was the main story on the night, several Cubs turned in an impressive evening. Nicholas Castellanos got the scoring started with his now-mandatory first inning home run, unloading on a 1-0 fastball from Cal Quantrill to deep left field for a two run bomb that looked like it had a chance to hit an ad for a local college located above the Cubs bullpen. Did that ball just choose a safety school? Because Castellanos sent it to National University.
In the bottom of the second, Hoerner kept up the pattern of making one dazzling highlight for every inning of his big league career. This time, Wil Myers grounded a Hendricks offering up the middle. Nico ranged to his left and made a nice stab, spun a 360 and threw to first. Anthony Rizzo had to make a nice stretch to record the out, as if to remind us that this is an era where Cub prospects actually pan out. Sometimes.
Hoerner was still just getting started. In the top of the fourth, Victor Caratini lined a single to left field. Nico then bounced one back to Quantrill, who got the force at second. But Hoerner beat the relay throw to first, flashing a bit of speed. Jason Heyward then slipped a ground ball past Eric Hosmer, who looked like he was trying to field it while stuck on pause, and the Cubs had runners on first and third.
David Bote was up next and he worked the count to 3-2. Ball four was in the dirt and shot away about 15-20 feet from Padres catcher Austin Hedges. Hoerner didn’t hesitate and as soon as it got away, he busted it toward the plate, scoring the Cubs’ third run of the game without a throw. It was like Nico knew that if he were stepping in for Javy Báez, he’d have to bring an 80-grade fun tool.
The Padres tried to stop the party by cutting the lead to 3-2 in the bottom of the fourth. Martini and Manny Machado led off with consecutive singles. Hendricks then induced Hosmer to ground right to Ben Zobrist at second for what appeared to be a surefire twin killing. But Zobrist knew that even in the best of times, he’s a bit slow to get the ball out of his glove and in his haste to get in throwing position, he threw it into left field. One run scored and San Diego had second and third with no one out. A Wil Myers sac fly later made it a one run game.
That was as tense as it would get. Immediately answering back in the fifth, Kyle Schwarber lined a 2-2 high fastball to straightaway left field. Eschewing the customary bat flip, Schwarber celebrated his homer with a double take at home plate, as if he were trying to create the baseball version of a Jon Stewart “WHAAAAA?” gif. By the time he began his trot, the Cubs’ lead was 4-2.
Castellanos and Caratini followed with singles, bringing Hoerner to the plate with one out. And before you had time to say “Time for his first RBI,” Nico decided that one wasn’t enough, hitting a sharp grounder down the third base line into the left field corner that scored both runners. As Hoerner slid into third for his first career triple, the Cub fans at Petco Park had already started a “NICO NICO NICO” chant. And because this was San Diego, it was a bit of an upset that half the men in the ballpark didn’t immediately turn around and answer “Yes?”
Jason Heyward followed by blooping an RBI single to right field because karma is real. A Bote single and Hendricks safety squeeze made the game 8-2 and, for all intents and purposes, over.
Nico, however, was not. In the top of the sixth, Schwarber and Castellanos led off with singles. After a Rizzo strikeout and Caratini bouncer, Hoerner came to the plate with runners on second and third and two away. Despite falling behind in the count 1-2, Nico bounced the next pitch up the middle for yet another hit and two more RBIs to make it 10-2. The Cubs actually have a player who can make solid contact with two strikes.
Now would be a good time to insert the Kyle Schwarber “WHAAAAA?” gif.
At that point, the fans began another “NICO” chant. Which was a bit of an error as they should have been chanting “MVP.”
It was the most dramatic Cubs debut since Báez’s 2014 game winning home run in Colorado. And the best overall first big league game performance since Starlin Castro’s six RBIs in 2010. Before the night began, Petco Park’s lights blinked on and off repeatedly and Len Kasper insisted it was part of a pregame hype show. In retrospect, it turns out the Padres knew in advance that it was a good idea to hook up the ballpark to the energy that Nico Hoerner was bringing all night.
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