These 3 Cubs are heating up down the stretch

August 29th, 2022

MILWAUKEE -- There were layers to Cubs manager David Ross' decision to pull Adrian Sampson from Sunday's contest in the fourth inning. There were early hard-hit balls in play, combined with factors to consider for the next road trip.

By not using Sampson for a fourth consecutive inning, the Cubs are able to replace him for the upcoming series in Toronto when he is placed on the restricted list. Still, it put a strain on the pitching staff and put the lineup in comeback mode in the 9-7 loss to the Brewers at American Family Field.

"The offense fought really hard," Ross said.

Leadoff man Nick Madrigal continued his recent strong stretch by reaching base three times. Ian Happ connected for a double that marked his hardest-hit ball since his rookie year. And then there were standout showings from Seiya Suzuki, Franmil Reyes and Nico Hoerner.

Let's zero in on that trio with the home stretch of the season in mind:

1. Suzuki's year of ups and downs
The Cubs expected there to be plenty of learning moments this season for Suzuki when the club brought him into the fold via a five-year, $85 million contract. Following an incredible April, the outfielder's first MLB season has met that prediction.

Suzuki missed June due to a left finger injury, but he has posted monthly OPS splits of .934 (April), .616 (May), .782 (July) and .676 (August).

"That's just a rookie in this league trying to feel his way out," Ross said. "I think the ups and downs have been really good for him, and him finding out his timing and what works for him, how much to work, how much to study and then just go out there and play."

In Sunday's defeat, Suzuki drew a pair of walks and delivered an RBI single in the second inning off Brewers lefty Eric Lauer. Suzuki's two outs registered exit velocities of 105.1 mph and 103.9 mph, per Statcast.

That showing was part of a recent uptick in production from Suzuki, who has slashed .288/.383/.423 over his past 15 games. That includes one homer, four doubles and seven walks, compared to nine strikeouts.

"That's the best thing for him," Ross said, "just continue to push through this season and look up at the end and kind of be able to recap your strengths and weaknesses and things you learn about the season. He's going through that."

2. Reyes' fresh start, strong finish
In the ninth inning, Reyes attacked a slider from Brewers reliever Brad Boxberger that found itself spinning into one of the slugger's hot zones. Reyes sent the pitch towering over the left-field wall and dropping into the second deck at American Family Field.

Reyes turned to the Cubs' dugout and tossed his bat that direction before turning into his trot. He finished the day with a walk, double and homer in five plate appearances.

"He's done a great job for us," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said on Thursday in Chicago.

The Cubs claimed Reyes off waivers from Cleveland earlier this month after his rough season led to being demoted to Triple-A and then designated for assignment. The fresh start with the North Siders has breathed life into Reyes' bat.

Through 19 games with the Cubs, Reyes has slashed .280/.304/.520 with three homers, five doubles, two triples and 10 RBIs. Chicago has lacked middle-order power this season and will be in the market for it again this winter, when Reyes will be eligible for arbitration.

"Having an extra-base threat in the middle of the lineup is certainly helpful," Hoyer said. "Obviously we control them the next couple of years through arbitration. And listen, we'll make those decisions as we go forward. But certainly, power is something that we were well aware we would [need]."

3. Hoerner's increased slug
Offensively, Hoerner is known for his above-average contact rate and ability to spray hits all over the field. Case in point: the Cubs shortstop had singles to left and right field in Sunday's loss. Hoerner also ripped a homer down the left-field line in the fifth.

"He had a good day," Ross said. "The two-run homer put us right back in the mix. He did a nice job of being able to continue to get on-base, give us some threat there late."

The focus around Hoerner this season has understandably been on his defense, too. And the shortstop was at it again Sunday, making, among other plays, multiple highlight-reel gems in the shift from shallow right field.

The home run off Lauer, however, was Hoerner's eighth of the year.

The shortstop has connected for one homer per roughly 54 plate appearances this year, compared to one every 126 PA across 2019-21. His launch angle has climbed two years in a row (0.8 degrees in '20, 7.7 degrees in '21 and 10.5 degrees in '22), and so has his expected slugging percentage and barrel percentage.

"Physically, mentally," Hoerner said this weekend, "everything up to this point this year has really, really served me well for growing into the best player I can be and being a part of winning teams in the future."