If the Chicago Cubs could bottle moments like Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about people calling this a rebuild.
Christopher Morel’s bat-flipping celebration after homering in his first major-league at-bat, combined with Brandon Hughes’ five strikeouts in 1⅔ innings in his big-league debut, provided Cubs fans with hope the future might be brighter than imagined.
That’s what an infusion of youth can do.
“It just brings that energy, that new energy,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said before Wednesday’s 3-2 loss in the series finale against the Pittsburgh Pirates ended a season-high four-game winning streak. “It’s having a good balance of both. We have so many good veteran guys around here now that bring the right energy from that side and that aspect.
“But seeing these young guys come up, kind of a deer-in-the-headlights (look) a little bit. They don’t know what to expect. They just go out and play and play so wholeheartedly and so natural. It’s just fun to see all that emotion come out of them.”
Morel was in the starting lineup at third base Wednesday, still flying from Tuesday’s electric moment. He went 1-for-3 with a walk and singled with two outs in the ninth before David Bednar got Yan Gomes to fly out to center to end it.
Four Pirates pitchers combined to hold the Cubs to five hits, only one after the fourth inning. The Cubs scored their runs on Ian Happ’s solo home run off Will Crowe in the first and Frank Schwindel’s RBI single off Mitch Keller in the fourth.
Cubs starter Drew Smyly pitched 4⅓ innings, allowing three runs on six hits with five strikeouts.
When Morel stepped up in the eighth inning Tuesday, the 22-year-old call-up from Double-A Tennessee knew that Willson Contreras had homered in his first at-bat in 2016.
“I saw it on the scoreboard and I said to him, ‘Hey, I’m going to make my first at-bat a home run just like you,’ ” Morel said.
The moment the ball left the bat, Contreras jumped out of the dugout like the Cubs had won the pennant. It was an instant flashback to June 19, 2016, at Wrigley, when he homered in his first major-league at-bat on Father’s Day against the Pirates.
“It was amazing,” Contreras recalled Wednesday. “A good introduction for me in the big leagues.”
Justin Steele chimed in, recalling watching the shot six years ago when he pitched for Class A South Bend.
“Pretty sure me and Adbert (Alzolay) watched that home run together,” Steele told Contreras.
Morel’s homer sparked a wild reaction from the crowd at Wrigley, which already was on its feet for the 3-2 pitch. He performed a semi-moonwalk out of the box while flipping his bat for what he insisted was the first time in his career.
Really? His first-ever bat flip?
“Like this, yes,” he said. “Last year I hit a walk-off and I flipped my bat, but not like this.”
Morel became the ninth Cub to homer in his first major-league at-bat and the first since Contreras.
“I wasn’t thinking about it until it happened,” Hendricks said of the coincidence. “(Contreras) did it on the first pitch, of course. But we thought about it right away, especially Willson running out there giving him a hug. It was just an awesome, awesome moment for him. Going out there and doing that, it’s so cool to see things like that happen.”
Contreras said he was waiting for Morel to “do something positive, either a blooper or a base hit.”
Morel did something even better.
“Hitting a home run is pretty good,” Contreras said. “Almost nobody can do that in the big leagues.”
Manager David Ross called it a moment Cubs fans will always remember and said he and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy had “swelling” in their eyes.
“That’s what stories are made of, and I’ll never forget that,” Ross said. “It reminded me of Willson’s first at-bat, that emotion. And then I started laughing when he nearly missed first base, like Mark McGwire (after breaking the home run record).”
The Cubs were riding a wave before Wednesday’s loss, with a four-game winning streak and Marcus Stroman scheduled to return to the mound Thursday after his COVID-19-related IL stint. Closer David Robertson was cleared to return from his COVID-related absence Wednesday.
Team President Jed Hoyer doesn’t want his plan labeled a “rebuild,” a term the Cubs embraced a decade ago before it became associated with another word — tanking.
But when kids such as Morel, Steele, Hughes and Keegan Thompson enjoy some success, “rebuild” doesn’t sound quite as offensive. Most Cubs fans, in fact, would prefer to watch unproven 22-year-olds develop at Wrigley than former prospects signed on the cheap or 30-something pitchers who can be moved at the trade deadline.
“We have a lot of good, young talent, and they are hungry,” Contreras said. “They bring a lot of positive energy around the clubhouse, which is always good to have.”
Hendricks and Contreras helped establish the winning culture on the North Side in their early years, and both said they hope the younger players understand they’re here to keep that culture alive.
“We’re trying to hold on to that,” Hendricks said. “And everybody that comes into this environment, we hope that’s what they feel.”
Source: Berkshire mont