Cubs’ Nick Madrigal ready to start hitting? It really would be a barrel of fun

MILWAUKEE — “Nicky Two Strikes”?

Please, that’s so 2021.

It’s “Nicky Barrels” now.

The first nickname was Nick Madrigal’s when he played for the White Sox, hit .317 over parts of two seasons (83 games) and displayed an uncanny knack for putting good wood on the ball when down to his last strike. Behind 0-2, he had pitchers right where he wanted them.

The second nickname might not be on T-shirts and hoodies yet, but it’s what the Cubs are calling him. It has a heck of a ring to it, too. Just imagine if Madrigal actually starts hitting, right? His average with the Cubs — whom he joined in earnest this year after being traded last summer as he recovered from a torn hamstring — lagged at .218 entering the opener of a three-game series against the division-leading Brewers.

Madrigal was out of the lineup for the second straight game Friday, part of the Cubs’ plan to handle the second baseman with care as he tries to get through a full season for the first time. He has started 14 of 20 games, the most recent one a two-hit effort in Atlanta.

He’s itching to put that barrel to work. Does he feel a hot streak coming?

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” he said. “I mean, I feel great. I feel like I’m seeing the ball better and better each week. I’ve hit some balls right at guys, but I feel confident that my swing is where it needs to be. The hits are coming. You just have to stay with it.”

Cubs shortstop Nico Hoerner first got a look at Madrigal in the batter’s box when they were 11 and playing against each other in travel ball in Northern California. The standouts — future 2018 first-round draft picks — played together for Team USA in their mid-teens and later battled often as stars at Stanford and Oregon State, respectively.

At every stage, Hoerner marveled at the pint-sized Madrigal’s ability to go up, down, outside or in and put a difficult pitch in play and often where the defense wasn’t. It was true as they rose to prominence, their high schools a little over 80 miles apart. It’s no less true now that they’re locker neighbors at Wrigley Field and, wouldn’t you know it, here at American Family Field.

“That’s probably the most extreme skill that he has,” Hoerner said. “We all end up swinging at bad pitches here and there, but he has an amazing skill to make the most of it sometimes. I’m excited for what he’s going to do the rest of this year.”

Manager David Ross believes Madrigal’s size — he’s only 5-7 — not only shrinks the strike zone but makes it easier to let high pitches go and makes him quicker to drop the head of the bat on a ball that’s down. A questioner referenced Yogi Berra, who at 5-8 was one of the greatest bad-ball hitters ever. Ross countered with Astros star Jose Altuve, who is only 5-6 and another expert in this area.

Wait, we can’t go mentioning Madrigal in the same paragraph with those guys, can we? It’s not fair at all. But Madrigal “has the timing and the eye-to-hand coordination to be able to take the barrel to the baseball consistently,” Ross said.

Now he just has to start doing it. Madrigal managed to get traded from one team to another — one league to the other — without having to move from his downtown digs, and what a nice feat that was for a 25-year-old who enjoys living in the city even more than he hoped he would. For his next trick, he’ll have to try to replicate that .300-plus South Side average and definitely not languish 100 or so points below it.

“I’m not too worried about it,” he said. “It’s such a long season.”

A nickname rides on it.

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