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How college seasons, winter leagues have helped Cubs prepare for a shortened 2020

2 years agoAndy Martinez

Nico Hoerner has never prepared for a full season in the majors. 

Yet, he finds himself in a situation where he might be just as prepared as any other big leaguer. 

With a one-of-a-kind, 60-game season on the horizon for Major League Baseball, Hoerner has a good idea on how he’s approaching and preparing for 2020. 

“The 60-game season is literally just like a college baseball season,” Hoerner said this week. “And this 3-week build-up is exactly what we do in college with intrasquads and stuff.”

Hoerner isn’t alone. 

Ian Happ, his roommate during quarantine, is also comparing this season to how he prepared for his baseball season five years ago, when he was a member of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats baseball team.

“I’ve been relating it to a college season,” the Cubs outfielder said. “The 56 games you play in college is as close of an experience as I can relate to with this.”

That means focusing on every game, every inning and, frankly, every plate appearance. In a 162-game season, an inning-ending strikeout with a runner on in the 3rd inning of a tie game in June won’t carry the same weight as a strikeout in the same situation this season.

But while that might make some think that players should be more aggressive, Happ believes players should do the opposite.

“I think patience is gonna be important because every game does matter so much,” Happ said.

Happ succeeded in doing that in his last season at Cincinnati. He started and played in all 56 regular season games, slashing .369/.492/.672 with 14 home runs and 44 RBIs.

“It’s gonna be new and exciting and when they hit play, you’re in the middle of the hunt,” David Ross said. “It’s almost like a college season crammed into 66 days. I think it’s exciting. The positives for us or the advantages would be a group that knows each other, been around each other a lot. You’re not worrying about relationship-building in the middle of all this.”

The ability to focus on just baseball gives an advantage to the Cubs. They can focus on the present and worry only about the game at hand. 

And those games will allow former college players to harken on their experiences. 

“There’s gonna be some similarities, game-wise,” Kyle Schwarber, who had a 1.124 OPS in his final season at Indiana University, said. “Every pitch is gonna matter from day 1 to game 60. So, we’re gonna have to be locked in, ready to go.”

Víctor Caratini knows the importance of being locked in for a short season, too.

Caratini has spent the last two offseasons playing winter ball with the Criollos de Caguas in the Liga de Béisbol Professional Roberto Clemente — the Puerto Rican winter league. The five-team league traditionally plays a 40-game season, with playoffs consisting of two rounds of a best-of-seven series to crown a champion. 

In the Latin American winter leagues, managers often ride the hot hands of pitchers or hitters, regardless of a player’s stature. Lineup turnover is a constant and managers are even let go after a bad run of games.

“We have to go out there every single night and try to get a win because the season is short and anything can happen,” Caratini said. 

That doesn’t mean they keep things out of perspective. Unlike the winter leagues, the Cubs are stressing staying in the moment.

“[It’s] not overreacting to 5 games, whether you lose 5 or win 5,” Happ said.

So, it’s crucial that the Cubs stay in the moment. While a stretch of games in a 60-game season can be important one way or another, the Cubs can’t lose focus of the task at hand.

That’s what Ross is preaching, too.

“You don’t really look at the big picture when you get out on the field,” Ross said. “[It] really is head down, blinders on, let me focus on what I can control in this moment.

“I learned early on in my career that when you’re able to that you can look up at the end of the year and be happy with how you concentrated in each individual moment and hopefully you had enough talent and enough skills and things went you’re way that you’re doing something special at the end and in the playoffs and in a chance to make history. I really don’t think that mindset changes.”

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