MESA, Ariz. — Dixon Machado won’t forget it any time soon — the exact moment that his career, and Nico Hoerner’s, took sharp turns because of one otherwise minor quadriceps injury.
“Literally the last day of the season,” Machado said. “I hit a ground ball between third and short and was just running hard, and at the last moment I just pulled my quad.”
It was the quad that sent him halfway around the world. And launched Hoerner’s major league career.
“That was crazy,” Machado said.
Crazy? The butterfly effect begun in that moment might even continue into the early part of this season.
Machado was the Cubs’ Triple-A shortstop in 2019, a player who spent parts of the previous four seasons in the majors with the Tigers, and he was finishing a good minor-league season when he got hurt Sept. 1.
The same day, Cubs shortstop Javy Báez slid into second base and injured his thumb. A few days later, an MRI revealed a hairline fracture of the thumb, and the day after that Báez’s replacement at short, Addison Russell, was hit in the head by a pitch.
Just like that, the Cubs had no big-league shortstop.
A quad injury never hurt so much.
“Of course you want to be in the big leagues, but injuries, they just happen,” Machado said. "You cannot control them.”
Machado, who is back with the Cubs’ organization at 30 this year, is the often forgotten part of the story of what came next — the call to Double-A shortstop Nico Hoerner, literally sitting on his parents’ couch at the time, to join the team as quickly as possible to play shortstop, with the Cubs clinging to playoff hopes.
“What choice did we have?” Cubs president Jed Hoyer said. “We were in a pennant race.”
Hoerner had played exactly 89 professional game since being drafted 24th overall in 2018.
“We didn’t want to have to go get Nico off a couch,” Hoyer said. “I look back on that now, and what we did to Nico was frankly unfair. He has the makeup to be able to handle it, and he performed really well — unbelievably impressive.”
For Hoerner, it was the opportunity of a career. After performing surprisingly well down the stretch, he was in the Cubs’ big-league plans in 2020 when the pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor-league season — which would have otherwise been his own lost 2020 season if not for the fluke promotion in 2019.
If not for Machado’s quad injury, Hoerner might have been looking at a 2021 debut at best. And it’s not a reach to think he might still be looking for that debut if he had had even a fraction of the injury issues he endured last year.
“The Sliding Doors Effect of baseball,” Hoyer said. “Those things happen; one guy doesn’t get an opportunity; one guy does.”
Not that Hoyer can remember an example this dramatic during his two decades in major-league front offices.
Machado, who believes he would have stayed with the Cubs’ organization after 2019 if he’d been available that September, ended up instead taking an offer to play professionally in Korea, where he spent the past two seasons.
“I’m a big believer in things happen for a reason,” he said. “I know that I wanted to be in the Show for sure, but that good season in Iowa took me to Korea for a couple of years, and I really enjoyed that over there. I feel like it made me a better player.”
Hoerner, who has yet to experience anything close to a “normal” season between the pandemic, injuries and the labor lockout, knows the callup in 2019 gave him an added opportunity, if not helped accelerate his own development.
“I think any player will tell you there’s not many years that’s just like, ‘This is how I envisioned it and that’s exactly what happened,’ “ he said. “That’s not really how our sport is built.”
In fact, as the final week or so of spring training plays out, Cubs starting shortstop Andrelton Simmons is working back from a sore shoulder, with Hoerner playing more short than expected in recent spring games. And while Machado was sent back to the minors out of big-league camp last week, he’s on the radar for possible big-league duty if Simmons isn’t ready by next week’s opener.
Hoerner and Machado only met this month as spring training opened.
“In baseball you need to be good,” Machado said, “and you need to be in the right place at the right time. And that was for him, and I’m happy for him that it happened that way.”