Another Morel moment: 97.3 mph throw marvels teammates

June 30th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Justin Steele had the perfect vantage point as he hustled to back up the plate. From foul territory, the Cubs pitcher watched rookie Christopher Morel unleash a furious throw from center field in the fourth inning on Wednesday night.

"That was pretty sick," Steele said after Chicago's 8-3 win over the Reds at Wrigley Field.

From Morel's first at-bat in the Majors, Cubs fans have witnessed his power. The standout rookie has flashed elite speed and provided infectious energy. Those traits were all present again in an all-around display against Cincinnati that included two hits, one a two-run homer.

It was Morel's right arm that stole the show.

The Cubs held a 1-0 lead with one out in the fourth, when Steele looked shaky after three dominant frames. The Reds had bases loaded -- with a plus runner in Tommy Pham standing on third -- when Donovan Solano sent a line drive into center field.

"I just had to give my best effort," Morel said via team translator Will Nadal. "Justin Steele was having a really good game."

Most of Morel's experience coming up through the Cubs' farm system was as an infielder, as he moved between second, shortstop and third. In the Majors, manager David Ross has leaned on the versatile 23-year-old as a center fielder and Morel has held his own as he learns and develops in the big leagues.

After Morel reeled in the liner off the bat of Solano for the inning's second out, he came up firing quickly, as Pham tagged and sprinted for the plate. According to Statcast, the throw left Morel's hand at 97.3 mph.

"It was like 97 mph, or something like that?" Steele marveled. "I can't even do that on the mound."

That velocity tied a throw earlier this season from Morel (on an assist to second base on May 21) for the hardest-thrown assist by a Cubs outfielder since five-time Gold Glove-winner Jason Heyward hit 98.9 mph on July 20, 2016.

"We know what kind of arm he has," Ross said. "This was the first time we really got to see him show it off. It looked a lot like an infielder with an exchange, right? He caught that ball on a line and everything just flowed right into him letting that ball go.

"It was all very seamless and smooth. Right on the money."

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras positioned himself slightly up the third-base line and received the throw. The catcher then lunged to his right, applying the tag on Pham's back before he could score a game-tying run.

"It felt like they just played catch from a long ways away," Ross said.

Contreras let out a howl. Steele pounded his glove in celebration as the Wrigley faithful roared with him, too. Steele got to head back to the dugout with the stress of that inning behind him, and Chicago's offense responded with six runs over the next three innings.

That included a strong showing from Morel, who was moved out of the leadoff spot by Ross after filling that role going back to May 24.

Morel earned that job with his incredible start to the season, hitting .303 with a .916 OPS over his first 22 games. In that span, he had 22 strikeouts in 103 plate appearances for a 21.4 percent strikeout rate. Over the next 16 games, Morel hit .191 (.531 OPS) and his strikeout rate ballooned to 45.2 percent (33 strikeouts in 73 PA) in that stretch.

Ross moved Morel to the ninth slot with the goal of "taking a little bit of pressure off" the young outfielder, the manager explained before the game. Ross was then quick to praise how Morel's attitude and energy on the field and behind the scenes had not changed during the recent slump.

"It's not just about me. It's about the team," Morel said. "I try to come in with a positive attitude. It doesn't matter if I'm doing well or I'm not doing that well. It's just about having that attitude, that effort rub off on the other players. And then, in turn, I might not have a good game at the plate, but I might have a good game helping others and inspiring the team."

Morel's energy was there after his hard-hit single (102.1 mph off the bat) in the fifth, as he clapped his hands hard and pointed skyward after reaching base. Two batters later, Morel jogged home on a home run by Contreras. In the sixth, he connected for a two-run homer (105.5 mph exit velocity).

Morel cracked a smile when asked if he preferred to hit a home run or throw a runner out at the plate.

"I help the team out in both ways," he replied. "I took a run away and then I provided runs, too."

It was that throw that generated the most buzz after the win.

"It was just a huge spot for that, you know?" Steele said. "To watch it happen, watch the throw come in, watch Willy get the tag, it was really cool to watch. I was fired up."