CHICAGO -- The Cubs fan in the left-field bleachers who caught Nico Hoerner's Opening Day home run was stunned. He held the ball skyward, did a celebratory jump with his jaw dropped, pressed the ball to his heart and then gesticulated some more.
And why would it not have been surprising? Hoerner did not homer in either of the past two seasons. He was facing Milwaukee's Corbin Burnes, the National League's reigning Cy Young Award winner. The odds were heavily stacked against Chicago in this moment.
But Hoerner's two-run shot to the bleacher seats in the fifth helped power a 5-4 win over the rival Brewers, encapsulating precisely what the Cubs want to be in 2022. Surprising. Reaching the playoffs is a goal, but it will be up to an overhauled cast of characters to see if reality will match aspirations.
"We'll find out how competitive we are," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said before the game. "I feel really good about the health of the organization from a financial standpoint. I feel really good about it from a prospect, young player standpoint.
"Now, we have to go out and play. The competitive part -- that's printed into the newspaper every day. So, I'm excited to get going."
Kyle Hendricks, one of the few remaining pieces from the 2016 World Series club, wanted to set an aggressive tone for the pitching staff. In his third straight Opening Day nod, the crafty righty did just that, striking out seven, generating 17 swings and misses and yielding just one run in his 5 1/3 innings.
“Overall, pretty good, being aggressive, setting the tone,” Hendricks said. “I'd still like to do a little better.”
Outfielder Ian Happ, who is out from under the wings of the past core and is now one of the Cubs’ more experienced players, settled into the cleanup spot and churned out three hits. That included a go-ahead two-run double off the yet-to-bloom ivy in center field in the seventh.
“Nice to get that first one in the books,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “That was probably the loudest the dugout got until the end of the game, when he got his first hit.”
And Hoerner, who is out to prove he can emerge from Javier Báez's shadow as Chicago’s everyday shortstop for the next several years, electrified the crowd with that stunning homer. For the 24-year-old Hoerner, the blast -- which gave the Cubs a 3-1 lead at the time -- marked his first homer since Sept. 21, 2019, when he was rushed to the Majors as a rookie.
“Man, to be honest, I really believe in the group that we have right now,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. “Like I told them during our meeting, they're here for a reason. They earned their spot. And if the front office chose them to be here, it's because they can do something special.”
Contreras knows a little something about achieving something special with the Cubs.
As part of that 2016 title club, Contreras, like Hendricks, is one of the core stars still in the fold. The All-Star catcher is, however, eligible for free agency next winter. It was the same situation that Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo found themselves in last season, when they were each traded for packages of prospects.
The uncertainty surrounding his future led to some emotions for Contreras on Opening Day.
“I told my wife that today I was getting chills,” Contreras said. “And once I stepped out there, I was almost tearing up. This place is so special to me that I will always keep it in my heart.”
Contreras and Hendricks provided familiarity for the fans who flocked to the Friendly Confines. There was also a key pinch-hit double from Clint Frazier and a save from veteran David Robertson. They are among the 11 players on the Opening Day roster who came aboard via free agency.
“Our goal this offseason, I think we said over and over, was to spend intelligently,” Hoyer said. “We wanted to build a team that could compete. We also wanted to really keep an eye on the future. I don't want to shy away from that.”
Along those lines, Opening Day served as a microcosm for what the Cubs hope to be in 2022.
Full of surprises.
“Who had Nico in the first homer pool?” Ross quipped after the win.