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Cubs Opening Day notebook: Suzuki flashes tools in debut

New Cubs right fielder Seiya Suzuki impressed at the plate, on the basepaths and in the outfield in his first major league game on Thursday. Suzuki reached base the first three times he went to the plate, collecting two walks and his first major league hit during Chicago’s 5-4 win over Milwaukee.

Suzuki’s second-inning single led to the Cubs’ first run of the season. He showed off his baserunning skills by advancing from first to third on a Jason Heyward single and then scored on Patrick Wisdom’s sacrifice fly.

Batting against reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes, Suzuki looked at ease.

“I don’t know what was going on inside, but he looked calm,” Kyle Hendricks said.

Suzuki said through interpreter Toy Matsushita that he had never seen a cutter with the power and movement of Burnes’, but he was able to adjust by looking at first-pitch fastballs and waiting for the pitches he wanted.

“I came to this stage to challenge myself,” Suzuki said. “To be able to face pitchers at that caliber, it’s going to bring my game to another level. I’m just very excited for what’s ahead of me.”

It’s that type of plate discipline that made Suzuki such an enticing prospect (if you can call a 27-year-old Nippon Professional Baseball star that) when the Cubs signed him. He proved he ability to get on base consistently on Japan, and Chicago believes that ability will translate here the more time he gets to get accustomed to the major league game.

“We wouldn’t have spent a lot of money on him if we didn’t think he was immensely talented,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Thursday morning.

Along with his base hit, Suzuki drew walks in the second and sixth innings. He said he is most proud of those two walks, and while an adjustment period to major league pitching is expected, plate appearances like those will certainly help build his confidence each time he steps in the box.

“I’m always conscious of just getting on base when I get my at-bats,” Suzuki said. “That’s something that I’m always trying to work on in terms of getting my results.”

Hoerner homers

“Who had Nico in the first homer pool?” manager David Ross asked reporters when he sat down for his first postgame press conference of the season on Thursday.

Nobody raised their hand, but a reporter then asked Ross if he himself had picked Nico Hoerner in that pool.

“No, no,” Ross responded with a laugh. “I can’t say I did, but I’m glad he homered.”

If someone did place a wager on Hoerner to hit the first run of the Major League Baseball season, that person is probably coming into a good chunk of money. With the score tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the fifth and Jason Heyward standing on first base, the Cubs’ starting shortstop reached out for a slider over the heart of the plate from Burnes and deposited it into the bleachers for a two-run shot.

Because Chicago and Milwaukee opened the MLB season on Thursday, Hoerner’s home run was the first for any major leaguer in 2022. What made it seem like an unlikely feat wasn’t only the fact that Burnes just came off a season that saw him earn the Cy Young, but also that Hoerner hadn’t gone deep since Sept. 21, 2019.

Now, Hoerner joins a club that only one new player can join each season. If he needs any advice on how to handle his newfound fame, he can just turn to Ian Happ, who joined the same club with the first homer of the 2018 campaign.

“Keep hitting more. Don’t just hit the one,” Happ said of a tip he might have for Hoerner. “I kind of went cold for a little bit (after the home run), so try not to get cold after that.”

Happ is a ‘grinder’

Speaking of Happ, he had about as great of a start to the season as Ross and Co. could’ve asked for.

After the Brewers tied the game in the top of the seventh, Happ walked to the plate with runners at first and second and two outs in the bottom frame. Facing Milwaukee’s Jake Cousins, Happ worked a full count before blasting a slider over the plate straight to the outfield. Happ thought the ball had a chance to leave the yard off the bat, but it instead bounced off the ivy-less center-field wall for a two-run double.

“That’s who he is,” starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “He grinds it out, hard worker, and he’s going to play. He’s just a gamer.”

The home run would’ve sent the crowd into a frenzy, but the eventual game-winning two-bagger still but a nice cap on Happ’s day at the plate. His double followed a ground-rule double in the second and a single to left in the sixth, giving him a three-hit, two-RBI game to begin his season.

Happ was slowed for most of spring training by a February procedure in his right elbow, which limited his throwing ability as he moved through his recovery plan. The idea is that Happ will see more time as a designated hitter early in the season to ensure he’s not overworking his elbow in the field.

As long as he keeps swinging the bat the way he did Thursday, the Cubs might want to have him play in whatever spot he sees fit.

Contreras plunked by Brewers… again

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Willson Contreras was hit by a pitch from a Brewers pitcher on Thursday.

It’s not that Milwaukee’s Jake Cousins meant to hit Contreras, and Contreras even admitted in the clubhouse after the game that he was aware it wasn’t intentional. Contreras’ former teammate Victor Caratini — who entered the game behind the plate for Milwaukee in the sixth — assured him that the HBP wasn’t intentional, but that didn’t stop Chicago’s backstop from having a quick reaction.

“Caratini is a really nice guy, he’s really easy going, and he told me it wasn’t on purpose,” he said. “I was like, I know it’s not on purpose, but the history speaks for itself. I know he’s not trying to hit me, but it’s just (the) history.”

That history he’s speaking of is the history of hit-by-pitches against the Brewers that Contreras has faced for most of his career. After not getting plunked by Milwaukee pitching his first two seasons in the majors, Contreras has gotten hit 14 times since the beginning of 2018, including four times apiece in both 2020 and ’21.

Previous instances have led to more heated situations, but Contreras — who seems to be a bit more of an even-keeled veteran this season — let it go without incident. And besides, as he said after the game, that hit by pitch led to a Cubs win to start the year.

“The good thing was that we won the game,” Contreras said. “That hit by pitch led Ian Happ to hit a double and two RBIs. That was the difference.”

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