Mental game: How Nico Hoerner stayed ready and came back to the big leagues
Nico Hoerner walked out of David Ross’ office at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa and tried to process what he had just heard. After a strong spring in which he posted a 1.055 OPS, he had just been told he wouldn’t be breaking camp with the big-league team.
“I was really surprised,” Hoerner said. “But I was proud of the work I put in in the offseason and how I showed myself in spring training, so I had no regrets on my own end.”
Instead of being down on himself or pouting about what had transpired, he turned any negative feelings he might have had into momentum as he tried to work his way back to the majors.
Admittedly, though, that was a lot easier said than done.
“I think the most difficult part at first was that we weren’t playing other teams right away, cause I felt like I was at the top of my game and playing other teams ready for the season and then you go back to live at-bats and more like a practice setting,” Hoerner said. “So, mentally how do you make that as game-like as possible and continue the positivity of what happened in spring?”
That made the first few days of the alternate site tough for Hoerner. But then the Cubs’ alternate site team started playing other alternate site teams like the White Sox’ alternate site, which benefitted him.
“The real games really are where you get your feedback as a player, so nice to get that,” Hoerner said.
At the alternate site, he had plenty of veterans to lean on and ping questions off of. The Cubs alternate site features plenty of big-league experience with players like catcher José Lobatón, outfielder Cameron Maybin and current backup catcher Austin Romine, who was at the alternate site while he worked back from injury.
“There was a lot of service time at the alt-site there,” Hoerner said. “There’s a lot of different ways to handle difficult settings and it’s nice being around people that go about it in a professional way and there’s a lot to learn from that.”
While in South Bend, Hoerner was also able to work on his revamped approach at the plate, something he worked on heavily in the offseason and saw success with down in Arizona. That’s how he stayed ready, hoping a call back to Chicago would happen.
In his initial meeting with Ross when he was told he start the season at the alternate site, Ross also was transparent with him. Ross told him, that if someone went down with an injury for an extended period of time, he’d be the first one called up. That gave him something tangible to work towards.
That chance happened Thursday.
Joc Pederson was placed on the 10-day injured list and Hoerner was brought back up.
“I think, as it’s transpired, everything they’ve said has been true,” Hoerner said. “If I control my end as a player, then i know I’m gonna have a good opportunity with the cubs and that’s a pretty awesome spot to be in for someone that — being a starting player in the major leagues is something that’s gotta be earned. I’ll continue to prove that, and I think the opportunity will be there if I do that.”
He was able to relish that moment with his friends, who just so happen to be his teammates, too. Hoerner watched and cheered on his friends in South Bend, spending “a lot of time watching Cubs baseball.”
That friendship was on display when he was called back up.
“It’s really, really easy to root for Nico Hoerner,” Anthony Rizzo said. “When I knew he was getting called up [Thursday], sent him a nice text, just happy he’s back and hopefully he’s here to stay.”
The ability to stay within himself has been the biggest thing Hoerner has learned through all of this. It got him through the harsh portion of starting the season at the alternate site and it will help him along any other challenges he faces in his baseball career.
“I think that makes hard news a lot easier to handle when you feel like you’ve controlled what you can,” Hoerner said. “Obviously not what I wanted to hear, but I was proud of the work I’ve done, and my game is in a great place.”