The Chicago Cubs hoped Nico Hoerner's fluke injury wouldn't require time on the injured list.
Unfortunately for Hoerner, the Cubs couldn't continue to wait for his sprained right ankle to progress as they deal with thin infield depth. So Hoerner went on the 10-day IL before Sunday's 3-2 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Cubs activated shortstop Andrelton Simmons off the IL. Simmons had been sidelined with right shoulder soreness that emerged shortly after he signed in March .
Hoerner hurt his ankle getting tangled with second base umpire Dan Iassogna during an outfield collision in the first inning Tuesday in San Diego. He remained in the game, striking out in the top of the second, before leaving in the bottom of the inning. Hoerner had not appeared in a game since.
Hoerner can't seem to catch a break. It's the fifth time in two seasons the 25-year-old infielder spent time on the IL. He was getting in a groove before the fluky injury, hitting .305 with a .328 on-base percentage to accompany stellar defense to anchor the middle infield.
Simmons wasn't in the lineup Sunday but should provide defensive stability at shortstop for however long Hoerner is sidelined. Simmons went 2-for-24 with seven strikeouts and two walks in six rehab games at Triple-A Iowa.
The Cubs need Simmons more for his defense than his offensive potential. The middle infield has not looked good since Hoerner's injury. Ildemaro Vargas has struggled to field the ball cleanly in four games filling in at shortstop. His two-out error in the fourth Sunday allowed the Diamondbacks to score the tying run.
Despite some defensive shakiness, the Cubs' West Coast trip featured their first back-to-back series wins in 2022. Here are three takeaways from the 4-2 trip.
1. Justin Steele takes on a challenge to limit long at-bats.
The Cubs know Steele possesses swing-and-miss talent and is capable of racking up strikeouts. The quality of the left-hander's stuff usually isn't the problem. Extended at-bats and long innings too often have tripped him up.
To be a successful big-league starter, recording outs early in the count needs to be part of the equation. It will help Steele limit his pitch count and last deeper in games.
So pitching coach Tommy Hottovy has given Steele a goal for his starts: How many batters can he retire on three pitches or fewer? Sunday against the Diamondbacks, Steele ended 11 at-bats in three pitches or fewer and another six at-bats in four pitches.
It was part of Steele's best start of the season. He pitched a season-high six innings, struck out a career-high 10 batters and gave up two runs (one earned) on three hits and two walks in 90 pitches. The Diamondbacks had no answer for Steele's slider, which generated nine whiffs and produced eight of his strikeouts.
"He was really efficient, throwing strikes," manager David Ross said. "That's how he's been. Usually he has one little bump-in-the-road inning that costs him a lot of pitches and makes us get somebody up. But today he did a really nice job of just pounding the zone, making those guys earn it and didn't give a lot of free passes."
A 10-pitch walk and Vargas' error contributed to a 30-pitch fourth, but Steele bounced back to go two more innings. Starts like Sunday's are important for Steele's development.
"It's just being more consistent in the strike zone when I need to be, like early in the count, 0-0, getting that first strike's huge," Steele said. "Felt like I did a pretty good job with that tonight."
2. Kyle Hendricks makes an elusive in-game adjustment.
After Hendricks came an out away from a shutout Monday in San Diego, Hottovy was actually prouder of what he saw from the veteran during Saturday's 4-2 win.
Hendricks' performance was solid, holding the Diamondbacks to one run in 5⅔ innings. But his outing was heading the wrong way early as he struggled to get in a groove during the first three innings. Afterward, Hendricks credited catcher Yan Gomes for helping him work through it by sticking with fastballs down and away and telling Hendricks to stay on top of the baseball.
Usually when Hendricks struggles, it happens early in the start, often in the first or second inning when he can't make an adjustment. In the past when Hendricks is off, he'll know he doesn't have it that day, try to adjust his sight lines and get by as best he can.
That was not the case Saturday.
"I told him that he's probably going be mad at me at the end of the game because I could tell early, even in the warm-up, and I just was on him the whole time," Hottovy said Sunday. "We talked earlier in the year about being more that way and not just hoping that would we find it. Like, if we see stuff's off, talk about it. Let's make the adjustment and go."
This is a different way of thinking for Hendricks. Hottovy and the Cubs don't want him just to grind through a start on days he knows something with his delivery is off. The mission is to actively try to identify and fix it within the outing.
When Hendricks gets out of whack, it typically occurs at the top of his delivery. Between starts, he has drills he can fall back on to recalibrate his mechanics. Those don't always happen in starts, Hottovy said, so instead it's important to talk through what those drills do and then ideally make the in-game adjustments.
They were able to make that happen Saturday when Hendricks recovered to pitch into the sixth.
"When he gets to that balance point, he'll either at times roll through it and not really engage the legs and throw all arm," Hottovy said of Hendricks' off stretches. "There's other times he'll have to focus so much on getting to that position, he will get there and then it's a very slow move down the mound. The feeling that he wants to feel … is like he's kicking on that back leg.
"In the long run, by being able to execute that fastball down to play the changeup off of it, it's going to be a real big focal point most of the year."
3. Frank Schwindel is rewarded for a weeklong stretch of battling.
In the week since Frank Schwindel's demotion to the minors ended before he even departed for Triple-A Iowa , he had hit the ball better than it showed in his numbers.
Schwindel entered Sunday 3-for-15 on the trip, with balls finding gloves or — as was the case Tuesday night at Petco Park — falling a foot or two from a go-ahead grand slam . It made Schwindel's clutch hit Sunday especially satisfying.
His opposite-field single drove in the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth. He collected two hits in the win, while a 97.8 mph liner to center in the sixth appeared headed for the wall but was caught near the warning track.
"A crazy week," Schwindel said, "and then come back and put a bunch of good swings together, not really having much luck, so it was nice to squeak one out and put the team ahead right there. It's a good feeling."
Schwindel barreled three balls in five games on the trip and twice was robbed of hits.
"Definitely a positive sign that I'll get back to where I want to be," he said, "and build off that."
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