Cubs cash in on new brand of North Side baseball

MLB

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CHICAGO — The Cubs preached through the offseason and into the spring that their identity this year would revolve around pitching, defense and aggressiveness. The new-look North Siders used Opening Day to put that brand of baseball on full display.

In a crisp Thursday afternoon lid-lifter against the rival Brewers, a strong start from Marcus Stroman, a momentum-shifting double play from Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner and a rally built around timely hitting and alert baserunning delivered a 4-0 victory at Wrigley Field.

“This is not like an ‘I told you so,’ moment,” Swanson said. “But it’s just awesome when you’re proved right. I think it’s just such a great thing for our team, because it just gives even more believability in who we are.”

Stroman’s tone-setting outing
The final pitch that Stroman spun on Thursday was a breaking ball that eluded the bat of Brewers catcher William Contreras. As the Cubs starter headed off the hill, he pounded his glove and then pumped his arms to get the already-roaring crowd to up the decibel level.

“Great tone-setter for us,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I love when he takes the mound, just because he’s got some arrogance, swag and a good way about him. That was nice to have out there on Opening Day.”

Coming off a stint with Team Puerto Rico in the electric World Baseball Classic environment, Stroman was more than ready for the raucous setting at the Friendly Confines. He piled up eight strikeouts in six innings, but leaned on his signature sinker for nine outs via grounders.

It was the type of performance the Cubs are counting on from a rotation that is deeper in names than recent years.

Justin Steele is coming off a breakout showing in 2022. Hayden Wesneski has the type of stuff that could make him a dark horse in the Rookie of the Year picture. Like Stroman, veterans Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly offer ample experience. Kyle Hendricks (injured list) is working his way back, and the list of prospects coming soon is growing.

“Our starting five’s legit,” Stroman said. “Wesneski’s our five — he’s nasty. Taillon’s nasty. Smiley’s nasty. Steele is filthy, as well. I’ve got all the confidence in these guys.”

Hoerner and Swanson deliver
One of the driving factors behind adding Swanson via a seven-year, $177 million contract over the offseason was his Gold Glove defense. And with Swanson installed at short, Hoerner — an elite defensive shortstop in his own right last year — moved his defensive skills to second.

Together, Swanson and Hoerner help anchor a defense that looks like one of the best in baseball on paper. That is why Stroman quipped that his “sanker’s going to be sankin'” this season. The righty relies heavily on inducing weak contact in critical moments.

“He’s always got that in his back pocket,” Ross said.

That proved important in the third, when Milwaukee loaded the bases with one out against Stroman. He then used a 1-2 breaking ball to generate a grounder off the bat of slugger Rowdy Tellez. Hoerner was perfectly positioned to make a quick scoop before firing it to Swanson to start an inning-ending double play.

“Nico was in the right spot at the right time,” Swanson said. “I feel like that kind of got a little bit of momentum flowing on our side.”

Creating an offensive rally
With the Wrigley crowd still buzzing over that defensive gem, Hoerner drove a Corbin Burnes pitch the opposite way for a one-out single in the home half of the third. That put runners on the corners for Swanson.

“I’ll take the three-run homer whenever,” Ross joked.

The Cubs are hopeful that they will feature some power sources — Cody Bellinger, Edwin Ríos and Patrick Wisdom, in particular — but this lineup is built on athleticism. It will need to be an opportunistic group both in the batter’s box and on the basepaths.

Swanson delivered another opposite-field single, scoring Miles Mastrobuoni easily from third. Hoerner hustled from first to third on the play, sliding in as the Brewers relayed the ball to the infield. Milwaukee shortstop Willy Adames tried to quickly fire to first to catch Swanson off-guard, but the ball skipped wildly into foul ground.

Hoerner scrambled to his feet and scored on the play.

“[Third-base coach] Willie Harris was in my ear,” Hoerner said with a laugh. “Just, ‘You’ve got to go! You’ve got to go!’”

That helped spark a four-run outburst for the Cubs, whose recipe for success in 2023 was in full effect.

“It’s not a sport where you really draw too many big conclusions from one game,” Hoerner cautioned. “But, it does feel good.”

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