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Hoerner seizes chance to ‘prove’ he’s earned starting role originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – A persistent drizzle fell on Four Winds Field as Nico Hoerner retreated to the weight room. It was April 10, and his alternate site exhibition game had been rained out, while the same storm swept east toward Pittsburgh.

There, the Cubs’ major league squad was preparing to face the Pirates.   

“One of the most challenging parts of being in South Bend is, these are really close relationships (in Chicago) and a lot of people that make baseball incredibly fun,” Hoerner said in a Zoom media conference Saturday, “from the training staff to the coaches, and especially the players. So, being separate during the season is something that felt really strange and makes being back here that much more rewarding.”

Hoerner has been back with the Cubs for two games now and is penciled in to start at shortstop Saturday against the Brewers. He’s gone 3-for-5 with two doubles since the Cubs recalled him from the alternate site on Thursday. The roster spot opened when the Cubs placed Joc Pederson (left wrist tendonitis) on the 10-day injured list.

Hoerner said he was surprised when Cubs manager David Ross informed him last month that the club was sending him to South Bend to start the regular season. The gold glove finalist put on muscle in the offseason and impressed with a .364 batting average and .659 slugging percentage in spring.

“I was proud of the work that I put in, in the offseason, and how I showed myself in spring training. So, I had no regrets on my own end. I think that makes hard news easier to handle, when you feel like you’ve controlled what you can.”

David Bote also put together a strong offensive showing (.311/.367/.622). And the utility man led the Cubs in RBI (29) last season.

Cubs manager David Ross named Bote the everyday second baseman on the Opening Day roster. Citing Hoerner’s development – fast-tracked to the major leagues, the 23-year-old still has never played Triple-A ball – Ross said giving Hoerner “sporadic” at-bats in a bench role wouldn’t be fair to him.

“I probably was as honest with him as I’ve ever been with a player about what I was thinking and what the organization was thinking,” Ross said after the Cubs optioned Hoerner to Triple-A last month. 

Asked Saturday what his biggest takeaway was from that conversation, Hoerner paused before answering.

“As it’s transpired, everything they’ve said has been true,” Hoerner said, “in that if someone went down, I would be here in a starting role, and that’s where they see me, and that’s how I see myself. And so, I think we’re on the same page that way. … Being a starting player in the major leagues is something that has to be earned, and I’ll continue to prove that, and I think the opportunity will be there if I do that.”

Hoerner said at first, the most difficult part of the transition from spring training to the alternate site was the break from playing other clubs.

“I felt like I was at the top of my game and playing other teams, ready for the season,” Hoerner said. “And then you go back to live at-bats and more of a practice setting. So, mentally, how do you make that as game-like as possible and continue the positivity of what had happened in spring?”

The rainout against the Tigers alternate site squad two weeks ago was supposed to be Hoerner’s first competition against a different uniform, with limited fans in the stands. The alternate site roster played intrasquad games before sprinkling in a handful of exhibitions against other taxi squads in mid-April.  

According to Cubs Triple-A coach Marty Pevey, Hoerner took his demotion to the alternate site “the way you’re supposed to.”

Standing on the rain-soaked Four Winds Field two weeks ago, Pevey applauded Hoerner’s professionalism.

“He has that inner strength that is really hard to describe,” Pevey told NBC Sports Chicago. “He was profoundly upset but didn’t show it outwardly. It’s like when you strike out, you don’t have any emotion. It’s not going to be the last time you strike out.”

In his down time, before being called up, Hoerner said watched a lot of Cubs baseball. So, he’s experienced the ebb and flow of the season from afar.

“Any expectation that a baseball season’s going to be perfectly smooth and go exactly how you planned out in your head is pretty silly to do for yourself,” Hoerner said. “I’ve been able to play a lot of games, get a lot of at-bats in South Bend. So, ready to play baseball, and yesterday was a lot of fun.”

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