Bellinger's big game, return to lineup comes at crucial time

May 11th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- Welcoming the Cubs at the start of their three-game trip to Pittsburgh this weekend are two of the most electric starting arms they’ll face in the division: Jared Jones and Paul Skenes, two pitchers who can hit 100 mph.

Thankfully for Chicago, can hit 100 mph, too.

In his first at-bat, Bellinger turned around a 100.5 mph fastball from Jones, crushing a homer to right field. It kicked off a 4-for-5 game for Bellinger to lead the Cubs to a 7-2 win over the Pirates on Friday night at PNC Park.

It marks not only the fastest pitch that Bellinger has hit for a homer, but the fastest offering that any Cubs batter has hit for a homer in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008). It’s also the second-fastest pitch hit by any MLB player this season for a homer behind Gary Sánchez’s dinger off a 101.9 mph pitch from Pirates reliever Aroldis Chapman.

“Honestly, he’s got really good stuff,” Bellinger said of Jones. “And as a young kid, he showed good poise up there. It was just a fun at-bat.”

Pirates manager Derek Shelton added: “The fastball wasn't a bad pitch. Bellinger's a good player.”

After Cubs starter Javier Assad labored through a two-run first inning before locking in the rest of the way, the Cubs tied the game on Bellinger's double and an error in the fifth inning, and Bellinger singled and scored a run in the Cubs’ four-run rally in the seventh inning after shortening his swing to ground an 0-2 offering from Hunter Stratton that was way below the strike zone.

Bellinger sent his final hit toward the dangerous left-center field gap, but just a bit too slow to funnel into the North Side Notch, which would have given him a chance for a triple and the cycle. With seven hits in his past three games, Bellinger is looking like his peak self at the plate.

“Cody had some really good at-bats, and Cody got some pitches he could handle,” manager Craig Counsell said. “When the guy was up, it was tough on him. When he was down in the strike zone, we got some better swings, and Cody got some good swings on some balls down in the zone.”

Bellinger has been limited since his return to designated hitter work for the time being. He sustained a right rib fracture on April 23 while crashing into the outfield wall at Wrigley Field. Following his emphatic return to action against the Padres on Tuesday, during which he homered and notched three hits, he admitted that he’s still not pain-free -- and it might be a bit until he is.

But a Bellinger on the mend is still very valuable to the Cubs, especially given that they will be without everyday shortstop Dansby Swanson in the lineup. The timing of his return also nearly lined up perfectly with the return of outfielder Seiya Suzuki, who is slated to be in the lineup on Saturday.

Bellinger and Suzuki were key power cogs in the Cubs’ lineup before they went on the injured list, combining for seven doubles, one triple and 10 homers in 156 combined at-bats so far this season.

“We’re obviously very excited to have him back,” Bellinger said of Suzuki. “He’s a big part of our team, and he’s extremely talented. He helps our team a lot when he’s in the lineup.”

The duo’s test tomorrow: The top pitching prospect in MLB, who hit 100 mph or more 46 times in a College World Series game just last year. Skenes will be the third high-velocity righty the Cubs will have faced in a row, as they took on Dylan Cease (93rd percentile in fastball velocity) on Wednesday.

But the way Bellinger is once again timing up high heat after his injury, he’s not fazed.

“It’s a tough game,” Bellinger said. “Velo is a big part of the game right now, and so really just [focused on] sticking to the plan.”