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Spring Training Notebooks

Spring Training Notebook: Héctor Neris’ heartwarming gesture for Cubs minor leaguers

1 month agoAndy Martinez

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MESA, Ariz. — Héctor Neris remembers being a young major leaguer in Philadelphia and seeing then-hitting coach Steven Henderson take minor leaguers out for a dinner.

He never had that opportunity coming up in the minors but remembers thinking what kind of impact it could have had.

“When you’re in the minor leagues, for me to sit with a big leaguer, one that has experience that has spent time here where I want to get to, for me it was invaluable,” Neris said. “It had a big emotional value.”

So, he decided to make it his annual tradition, too. Neris did it in Philadelphia and Houston and brought it to Arizona with the Cubs now.

Earlier in camp, Neris brought along every Latino minor leaguer (about 70 players) to a dinner at Mambo’s, a local Dominican restaurant. He picked up the tab and brought along fellow relievers Daniel Palencia and Adbert Alzolay to help instill the tradition.

“I invited them so that they can adopt that culture and so the young guys down in the minors know that they have our support,” Neris said. “I want them to know that they can do it and they can reach their goals. It’s important to me. I want them to know that the guys that are here are like them and know what they’ve gone through and for them to be able to experience that is very beautiful.”

While they may be major leaguers with pedigree and — in Neris’ case, big contracts —  they suffered and sacrificed like many of those minor leaguers trying to reach the promised land. For many of these players, baseball is the easiest challenge they’ll face.

As teenagers, they travel thousands of miles away to a country with a foreign language, a culture vastly different from theirs and food they’re not used to. In most cases, parents and loved ones can’t come visit them for a variety of reasons and they’re forced to adapt at young ages on their own.

“You feel compromised and like you can’t reach out for a helping hand,” Neris admitted. “It’s frustrating in the moment. The culture, the food, it’s something that chokes the Latino player emotionally, the Asian player too.”

In most cases, they must fight these inner demons on their own. The Latino culture is predicated on “machismo,” so there’s a sense you can’t show any signs of weakness.

“A lot of times where people don’t know what a player is going through,” Palencia said. “This is a really tough game. It’s more than anything a mental game. So, to do that as a big leaguer, it fills you up with pride and gives you a bit more motivation to keep going.”

The goal of the dinner was to be able to share experiences, dole out advice and for those young players to know there’s always a helping hand.

“No, in my short time in the minor leagues, I didn’t have anyone that did that for me,” Palencia said. “Honestly, it feels really good for someone to do that and that inspires you to be a better person. It’s a reminder of where you come from and all that it took to get here.”

And for it to come from a player with as much pedigree as Neris meant even more. This is Neris’ 11th MLB season and he won a World Series with the Astros in 2022.

“Bro, it was incredible, because this is a guy that has gone through so much. He’s played a lot of years in the major leagues,” Palencia said. “He has so much good advice that all the minor leaguers can take.”

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Imanaga shines

Shota Imanaga was a big strikeout pitcher in Japan but it was unknown how that skillset would translate to MLB.

He’s succeeded in that area this spring — even if that’s not entirely what he’s trying to do.

The lefty struck out 9 Oakland A’s over 4.1 innings of work while permitting just 3 hits as the Cubs’ 3-1 win. He’s struck out 19 in 9.2 innings over 3 games this spring.

“So, in my head, I believe that a pitcher — a really good pitcher — shouldn’t just get strikeouts but also limit his pitch count,” Imanaga said through interpreter Edwin Stanberry. “Today I got strikeouts but threw a couple of pitches a little too much. So kinda want to continue to work on that, limit the pitch count and then continue to get strikeouts.”

He’ll have at least one more start to do that. Imanaga didn’t know if he’d make one or two starts before camp broke. If the Cubs continue on a 5-man rotation plan, Imanaga could make two more starts — one on five days rest and one on four days rest. They could also change things up a bit and have him start the spring finale, keeping him on the five-day plan he was accustomed to in Japan.

He’s leaned on the Cubs’ strength staff and the rotation leaders in Justin Steele and Kyle Hendricks.

“I talked to them about what they do the day after [an outing],” Imanaga said. “Usually really focus on the recovery, so when it is a day for recovery, just 100% focus on that.”

Next Up

Friday will be MLB’s Spring Breakout game between the Cubs and White Sox, featuring both clubs’ top prospects at Sloan Park. The game will start at 4 p.m. on Marquee Sports Network. The big-league Cubs will travel to Glendale, Ariz. to play the White Sox with Jordan Wicks getting the start.

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