Nico Hoerner living his best life: Why Cubs believed top prospect could handle The Show


Nobody thought he'd be here.

Not now, anyways.

When this week began, Nico Hoerner was hanging out at home in the Oakland area, gearing up for another stint in the Arizona Fall League to gain some extra experience after a hairline fracture in his wrist cost him two months of his first full professional campaign.

The Cubs certainly weren't expecting to need to be in desperation mode in regards to their shortstop depth chart. But with last week ending on the news that Javy Baez will miss the remainder of the regular season with a thumb fracture and then Addison Russell taking a 94 mph fastball off the face in Sunday's contest, Hoerner was pushed into action.

The Cubs put their top prospect on the fast track, calling him up to the big leagues 15 months after he was drafted and asking him to man the most important defensive position and face the best pitchers in the world while playing for a team fighting for its playoff life. 

All Hoerner has done since is impress, including in Friday afternoon's 17-8 win, where he swung at the very first pitch he saw in his Wrigley Field debut and sent it into the shrubs in center field to give the Cubs a 5-4 lead and cap off a wild first inning:

He followed that up with another 2-run single, giving him 8 RBI in his first five MLB games.

When asked before the game what kind of whirlwind this week has been for him, Hoerner smiled and kept his answer simple:

"It's not what I expected I'd be doing this week," he said. "But it's probably the best week of my life. It's been amazing."

Before Friday, the last time Hoerner was at Wrigley Field was July of last summer when he was getting examined for an elbow injury that cut his first pro season short after only 14 games.

He admitted these are bigger games than he's ever experienced before, but he is keeping his focus and staying calm by relying on his routine and trying to keep everything as normal as possible. 

Hoerner received a cheat sheet of notes from Cubs infield coach Brian Butterfield on the nuances of playing at Wrigley and has been talking to his new teammates all week about their first experiences in "The Show" and how they handled it. 

He also has some family in town that flew in from California after being fortunate enough to make his MLB debut in San Diego, close to his hometown. 

"Definitely a second debut, of sorts, today," Hoerner said. "I [stay calm by] continuing to do what I've done the last four days and my whole life. I'm really lucky to be on a team that's focused on winning right now. It kinda takes the personal side out of it."

Hoerner believes he belongs here, and his performance to date backs that up. He's played great defense at shortstop and now has 6 RBI in his first five big-league games after Friday's first-inning homer. 

That confidence has been palpable for the rest of the organization to see, too.

"It's cool," Jon Lester said. "...It's probably been a whirlwind for him, to come up here and contribute like he's been doing. I'm sure he hasn't been able to sleep a lot and has enjoyed his time here. Hopefully that continues for us, because he's been a little bit of a spark plug for us. Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball.

"Sometimes, we all need to get back to that. Sometimes, we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

On the one hand, it's amazing that a kid who has played just 89 minor-league games is able to spark a big-league club in mid-September during a pennant race. On the other hand, what does that say about the rest of the team that they need a rookie with five games of MLB experience to remind them how to play free and uptight?

At this point in the season, the Cubs will take it however they can.

Joe Maddon spent much of Friday's pregame session talking about how he sees this Cubs team playing too tight and with too much self-doubt and then turned around and used a totally different way to describe how Hoerner looks in his first week.

"His personality, his makeup, he's a really well thought-out young man," Maddon said. "A lot of self-confidence. He doesn't carry a lot of doubt with him. Plus, he's good — good hands, makes contact, he can hit a variety of different kind of pitchers. He's got all that going on for him.

"Why can he do this? It's because of him — the innate components of his being. He's a solid young man that believes he belongs here and that's why he's doing it so well."

Theo Epstein spoke outside the home dugout at Wrigley Field Friday morning and reiterated that the organization didn't anticipate calling Hoerner up this month and only did so because of the injuries to Baez and Russell coupled with other shortstops in the minor leagues (Dixon Machado, Zack Short) being slowed by injury of late, too.

"We decided that Nico, given his mental makeup, could handle it even if it's a lot earlier than we thought," Epstein said. "He's such a thoughtful kid. He's highly intelligent. He's got great emotional intelligence, as well. Self-aware.

"I think going into an environment where winning is the obvious priority, that fits his mindset because he's always just looking for ways to help the team win and be part of the group. He's done that so far. He's gone out, he's showed off his tools and his composure and it's been a nice start for him."

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