If you had walked into the Cubs’ clubhouse following their 3-2 win to open the series against the Mariners on Monday, one of the first things you’d have seen would’ve been a fun surprise: a big cowboy hat (though not quite big enough to fit his head) resting on the head of Nico Hoerner.
Given to him postgame by Yan Gomes, maybe that hat will become a trophy of sorts for anyone who accomplishes what Hoerner did to end the series opener. Considering Hoerner made his debut in September 2019, it felt like he would’ve had a walk-off hit by now. But with Nick Madrigal on third base and one out in the bottom of the 10th, Hoerner walked up with a chance to check that box for the first time in his big league career.
A few things, good and bad, had to line up for Hoerner to even get the opportunity:
Michael Fulmer, who’s been very reliable out of the bullpen to start the year, allowed a game-tying solo home run to Seattle’s Jarred Kelenic in the top of the 9th
Keegan Thompson, who walked two of the first three batters he faced to start extra innings, escaped a bases-loaded jam in the 10th to keep the game tied
Nick Madrigal, the automatic runner at second base who entered the game for the first time in place of Gomes in the bottom frame, barely reached third safely when he took off on an inside-move pickoff attempt by the Mariners’ Matt Brash
Tucker Barnhart, who failed to lay down a bunt attempt earlier in his at-bat, struck out with Madrigal still at third, bringing Hoerner to the plate.
Had any of that not happened in the late innings, perhaps Hoerner doesn’t get the chance to play hero. But all of it did happen, of course, which brought Hoerner to the plate with the opportunity to send the crowd home happy.
“We got a lot of confidence in Nico [to make] contact in those situations,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
You can probably guess what happened next. Hoerner quickly fell into a 1-2 count on brash, but when the right-hander came at him with a slider breaking outside, Hoerner went with the pitch and punched it into right field. Madrigal waited an extra second to make sure the ball would drop, but he ran home without a throw. And that was that — Hoerner, who’s quickly becoming one of the faces of the team, had his first-career walk-off hit.
“What a special thing to experience, something I’ve never done before,” Hoerner said. “Just gave [first-base coach Mike Napoli] a big hug at first base. To turn around and see the whole team running out towards you and in front of this crowd, it’s what you play the game for. Just have a chance for moments like that.”
There’s a reason the Cubs gave Hoerner a three-year, $35 million extension when he still had two years of arbitration eligibility remaining. There’s a reason Ross has plugged him into the lead-off spot for all nine games so far. The Cubs want him around for a long time and Ross wants him at the plate as much as possible, because when the moment presents itself, they have complete faith in his ability to deliver.
Tucked in Hoerner’s locker are a pair of batting gloves from former teammate Anthony Rizzo, which feature Rizzo’s dog, Kevin. The locker Hoerner has now is the one Rizzo used when the new clubhouse opened prior to the 2016 season. The old Cubs core is gone, but keeping something as small as a pair of batting gloves is a gesture of gratitude from Hoerner for what players like Rizzo did here.
“Just an appreciation of what was here before you,” Hoerner said. “I think that’s a huge part of baseball in general. It’s a game of history and tradition, and just to have a sense of what was there before.”
But he’s now a part of the new core. He’s one of the main links from the group that won the World Series but couldn’t get back to the top of the mountain to the group the Cubs hope are part of the next winner.
That new group should include players like Dansby Swanson (who signed this off season for $177 million over seven years, the team’s second-largest contract ever) and Seiya Suzuki (who the Cubs will ultimately will have spent nearly $100 million bringing him to Chicago). That could also someday include prospects like Pete Crow-Armstrong (No. 1 in the Cubs’ system, per MLB Pipeline), Kevin Alcántara (No. 2), Brennen Davis (No. 3), Cade Horton (No. 4) and plenty of other notable names in the minors.
Still, when longevity with the Cubs, past and future, is considered, who is that name fans everywhere recognize? It could be Kyle Hendricks, the longest tenured Cub — but he’s coming off two unproductive/injury-riddled seasons and could be allowed to hit free agency this winter. It could also be Ian Happ, who earned both his first All-Star selection and Gold Glove in 2022 — but he’s also set to hit free agency after this season, and he may even be a top trade chip at the deadline if things have gone sideways for the team.
Right now, that name really feels like it’s Hoerner’s. He may not be making the most money on the team, but he was around for the end of the last competitive era of Cubs baseball. He hasn’t played in a postseason game, but being around the previous core meant he could at least get some advice on what it takes to win on the North Side.
“I think the players that played here before obviously had a real impact on a lot of guys here. That’s real,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said on Opening Day. “Obviously, guys had a real impact on Nico, and you want to have leaders that pass things down. My hope is that the group of guys we have now will do the same thing.”
Despite the shiny new extension, Hoerner isn’t having some otherworldly start to the year. He’s hitting .341, but of the 15 times he’s reached base, only three are either through extra-base hits (two doubles) or a free pass. His strikeout rate is up a tick from 2022, while his walk rate would easily be the lowest of his career if the season ended today. His 103 wRC+ shows he’s still got work to do at the plate.
But he’s still playing that same brand of overall solid defense since shifting over to second base, and he continues to provide a spark at the top of the order. It’s no wonder why a large section of Cubs Twitter has made “Nico, we go” (a nod to former manager Joe Maddon’s “you go, we go” mantra for former leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler) a thing. It’s now wonder why Crow-Armstrong said early in spring that Hoerner embodies Cubs baseball.
There are a number of players on the roster who will be contributors when the team is ready to contend again. But as far as players who could be the “face” of Hoyer’s “Next Great Cubs Team,” Hoerner is right at the top of the list. So, it was fitting that Hoerner earned the Cubs’ first walk-off shower of 2023.
“I feel like this is a good place and we’ve got a good thing going, especially a guy like Nico, man,” Gomes told reporters still hanging around the clubhouse late Monday night. “This guy works his tail off. He’s one of the faces of our team.”
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