'New sheriff in town': Cubs celebrate Nico's 1st walk-off

April 11th, 2023

CHICAGO -- was waiting at his locker when reporters filed in on Monday night. The Cubs second baseman was wearing a black cowboy hat -- one a bit too small for his head -- featuring a silver star front and center.

Hoerner had veteran catcher to thank for his new look.

"He just put it on my head," Hoerner said with a smile. "We've got some sort of celebratory hat, I guess, that I've been assigned to."

The impromptu gift from Gomes came in celebration of the 3-2 win over the Mariners in 10 innings that Hoerner delivered in walk-off fashion. The second baseman hung with one of Matt Brash's tantalizing sliders, flicking it into shallow right-center field to kick off a party on the field.

Hoerner’s first career walk-off brought home , who started the frame as the automatic runner at second and pulled off a steal of third that was the result of good scouting and a bit of luck. When Hoerner reached first, he hugged first-base coach Mike Napoli and then turned to welcome the approaching mob of teammates as the new LED lights at Wrigley strobed.

"I was just so happy. What a special thing to experience," Hoerner said. "The whole team running out towards you, and in front of this crowd. It's what you play the game for -- just to have a chance for moments like that."

The hat arrived a few minutes later.

There was no deep backstory behind the hat's journey to Hoerner's head. Gomes explained that he was walking through the back of the clubhouse when he happened to spot the lid. That’s when he had the idea: Hoerner needed to wear it for his postgame interviews.

It was that simple.

"I just kind of saw the hat," Gomes said. "And I was like, 'Yeah, he's the new sheriff in town.' I feel like things like that happen organically."

Asked if this was now a walk-off tradition, Gomes laughed.

"Just trying to have fun in here," said the catcher. "I feel like this is a good place and we've got a good thing going, especially a guy like Nico, man. This guy works his tail off. He's one of the faces of our team."

At the start of the season, the Cubs signed the 25-year-old Hoerner to a three-year extension that will keep him in the fold through 2026. This came after Chicago reeled in shortstop Dansby Swanson -- who was dubbed "the sheriff" by teammates in Atlanta -- on a seven-year, $177 million deal over the winter.

With Swanson at shortstop and Hoerner (an elite shortstop in his own right in '22, ranking in the 98th percentile for outs above average) now at second base, Chicago boasts one of the top middle infields in baseball. The duo anchors a strong Cubs defense and sets the tone for the lineup, with Hoerner leading off and Swanson hitting behind him.

"They're going to be in big moments," Gomes said. "We're going to see a lot more of that. I feel like Nico, he's young in his career, but I feel like he's going to do a lot of big things in that spot. Dansby has done it. He's won a World Series. I feel like they're going to feed off each other."

Swanson's crucial contribution in Monday's hard-fought game with the Mariners came in the eighth inning. With a runner on second and no outs, Seattle's J.P. Crawford sent a Brad Boxberger pitch Swanson's way. The shortstop gloved the sharp grounder and fired it to third baseman , cutting down Cooper Hummel as he tried to advance.

"That's why that guy wins Gold Gloves," Cubs manager David Ross said.

Little moments like that led to Hoerner being in position to deliver the victory for a Cubs team that is seeing how it measures up to a playoff-caliber club like Seattle. Madrigal's steal of third base to set up the game-winning hit was another.

Before heading in as the automatic runner, Madrigal chatted with a few coaches and did some quick video studying on Brash's delivery. When the reliever lifted his drive leg a certain way, Madrigal read the movement and took off for third.

"I knew immediately that he might be picking," Madrigal said. "I was committed."

The gamble paid off. Madrigal avoided freezing when Brash spun around, and reached third safely. Later in the inning, Hoerner came through with his hat-securing single.

Gomes has no idea who actually owns the accessory.

"Somebody's missing a hat," he quipped.

It belongs to Sheriff Hoerner now.