The Chicago Cubs were hoping Nico Hoerner’s injury wouldn’t require time on the injured list.
Unfortunately for Hoerner, the Cubs couldn’t keep waiting for his sprained right ankle to progress as they faced shallow depth of play. So Hoerner took part in the 10-day IL ahead of Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Cubs activated shortstop Andrelton Simmons off IL. Simmons had been sidelined with right shoulder pain that emerged shortly after signing in March.
Hoerner hurt his ankle when he tangled with second base umpire Dan Iassogna in an outfield collision in the first inning Tuesday at San Diego. He stayed in the game, pulling out grabs early in the second, before leaving late in the set. Hoerner had not appeared in a match since.
Hoerner can’t take a break. It’s the fifth time in two seasons the 25-year-old infielder has spent time on the IL. He was getting into a fluky groove before the injury, hitting .305 with a .328 on-base percentage to go along with stellar defense to anchor the center infield.
Simmons wasn’t in the lineup on Sunday but should provide defensive stability at the shortstop as long as Hoerner is out. Simmons went 2 for 24 with seven strikeouts and two walks in six rehab games at Triple-A Iowa.
The Cubs need Simmons more for his defense than for his offensive potential. The midfielder hasn’t looked good since Hoerner’s injury. Ildemaro Vargas struggled to field the ball cleanly in four games at shortstop. His two-out error on the fourth Sunday allowed the Diamondbacks to score the tying run.
Despite some defensive tremors, the Cubs’ trip to the West Coast featured their first consecutive series wins of 2022. Here are three takeaways from the 4-2 trip.
1. Justin Steele takes on the challenge of limiting long shots.
The Cubs know Steele has swing-and-miss talent and is capable of racking up strikeouts. The quality of left-handed stuff is usually not the issue. Long at bats and long innings have too often tripped him up.
To be a successful starter in the big league, recording strikeouts early in the count has to be part of the equation. This will help Steele limit his pitch count and last deeper in games.
So pitching coach Tommy Hottovy gave Steele a goal for his starts: How many batters can he strike out on three or fewer pitches? Sunday against the Diamondbacks, Steele completed 11 at-bats on three or fewer pitches and six more at-bats on four pitches.
It was part of Steele’s best start to the season. He pitched a season-high six innings, struck out a career-high 10 batters, and allowed two runs (one earned) on three hits and two walks on 90 pitches. The Diamondbacks had no answer for the slider from Steele, who generated nine puffs and produced eight of his strikeouts.
“He was really efficient, throwing shots,” manager David Ross said. “That’s how he was. Usually he has a little bump in the road that costs him a lot of pitches and forces us to bring someone up. But today he did a really good job just beating the zone, making these guys deserve it and didn’t give away a lot of free passes.
A 10-pitch walk and Vargas error contributed to a 30-pitch fourth, but Steele bounced back to go two more innings. Starts like Sunday’s are important to Steele’s development.
“It’s just being more consistent in the strike zone when I need to be, like at the start of the count, 0-0, getting that first strike is huge,” Steele said. “I felt like I did a good job with that tonight.”
2. Kyle Hendricks makes an elusive adjustment in the game.
After Hendricks came off a Monday shutout in San Diego, Hottovy was actually more proud of what he saw from the veteran in Saturday’s 4-2 victory.
Hendricks’ performance was solid, holding the Diamondbacks to one run in 5⅔ innings. But his outing was headed in the wrong direction early on as he struggled to get into a rhythm through the opening three runs. Afterwards, Hendricks thanked catcher Yan Gomes for helping him out by sticking with fastballs and telling Hendricks to stay on top of baseball.
Usually when Hendricks struggles, it happens early on, often in the first or second set when he can’t make an adjustment. In the past, when Hendricks is out, he’ll know he doesn’t have it that day, try to adjust his sightlines, and get away with it the best he can.
It was do not the case on Saturday.
“I told him he was probably going to be mad at me at the end of the game because I could tell it early, even during the warm-up, and I was right on him the whole time,” Hottovy said on Sunday. . “We talked earlier in the year about being more like that and not just hoping we would find it. For example, if we see that things are wrong, let’s talk about it. Let’s make the adjustment and go.
It’s a different way of thinking for Hendricks. Hottovy and the Cubs don’t want him to just kick on the days he knows something is wrong with his delivery. The mission is to actively try to identify and fix it during the ride.
When Hendricks goes haywire, it usually happens at the peak of his delivery. Between starts, he has exercises he can fall back on to recalibrate his mechanics. This doesn’t always happen at first, Hottovy said, so it’s important to talk about what these drills do and then ideally make adjustments in-game.
They managed to make that happen on Saturday when Hendricks recovered to pitch in the sixth.
“When he gets to that balance point, sometimes he’s going to roll through and not really engage the legs and throw all the arms out,” Hottovy said of Hendricks’ stretches. “There are other times where he’ll have to focus so much to get to that position, he’ll get there and then it’s a very slow movement down the mound. The feeling he wants to feel…it’s like if he kicked that back leg.
“Long term, being able to run that fastball to play the change from that will be a real focal point for most of the year.”
3. Frank Schwindel is rewarded for a week of fighting.
In the week since Frank Schwindel’s demotion to the minors ended before he even left for Triple-A Iowa, he had hit the ball better than his numbers showed.
Schwindel entered Sunday 3 for 15 on the trip, with balls finding gloves or – as was the case Tuesday night at Petco Park – falling a foot or two from a grand slam. That made Schwindel’s clutch particularly satisfying on Sunday.
His single into the opposite field kicked off in the top of the ninth. He collected two hits in the victory, while a 97.8 mph liner in the center of the sixth appeared to be heading for the wall but was caught near the warning track.
“A crazy week,” Schwindel said, “and then come back and put a bunch of good swings together, not really having a lot of luck, so it was good to make one and put the team ahead right there It’s a good feeling.
Schwindel shot three in five games on the trip and was ruled out on hits twice.
“It’s definitely a positive sign that I’ll get back to where I want to be,” he said, “and build on that.”