Morel responds to new spot; Cubs roll past Reds

Development is clearly more important than victories for the Cubs right now.

In recent days, a tale of two young hitters has stood out.

On one hand, rookie Christopher Morel devolved into a strike out king. Heading into Wednesday's action, he'd whiffed 11 times in the previous four games.

Shortstop Nico Hoerner, meanwhile, was as hot as he's ever been, going 12-for-20 at the plate in the last five contests.

Both players were hitting stars in the Cubs' 8-3 victory over Cincinnati at Wrigley Field. Hoerner drilled a 2-run double in the fourth inning to give the Cubs an early cushion, and Morel delivered his sixth home run two innings later.

Catcher Willson Contreras also had a big night at the plate, with a home run and 2 doubles.

Even with all the strikeouts, Morel had collected a hit in 10 of his last 14 games. On Tuesday against the Reds, he struck out four times, but also had an RBI double to score the Cubs' first run of the night.

Manager David Ross made a change Wednesday, moving Morel to the No. 9 spot in the batting order. Morel had batted leadoff in 32 of the 38 games he played since moving up from Double A Tennessee.

"I think the main thing is just taking some of the pressure off," Ross said before the game. "I think taking one of those at-bats away, an area where he's putting a lot of pressure on himself, swinging and missing. Try to get his timing back, let the game come to him a little bit more rather than leading that off."

Morel's performance has obviously been the bright spot to this Cubs season. He was rated the team's No. 21 prospect by MLB Pipeline and few people expected him to even play in the majors this year, let alone become an integral part of the lineup.

"C-Mo's done a phenomenal job of staying true to himself," Ross said. "His passion, his energy, his work ethic, trying to get better every day. You don't ever question the intent, the focus.

"Even when things are going not as well as they were when he started, nothing else about him has changed. His attitude's still the same. He comes in with a smile, high-fiving everybody, pounding the umpires before he hits, the whole thing that he's established here."

As a first-round draft pick in 2018, expectations were higher for Hoerner. His hot streak brought back memories of spring training in 2021, when he was driving the ball and looking like someone who had spent all winter in the weight room. The improvement, it turned out, was more about adjusting his swing.

But the Cubs sent him to the alternate site when the regular season began, then injuries kept him to just 44 games last season, and that spring training swing became a forgotten memory, until now. According to Statcast, Hoerner is eighth in MLB in expected batting average, which measures the likelihood a batted ball will be a hit. He also leads the majors in outs above average, a defensive measure.

"He's using all fields, just very much on time, ready to hit everything," Ross said. "He's got a nice rhythm to his swing. He's just in one of those spaces.

"It's been nice to see him kind of put his flag in the ground and (say), 'I'm here, I'm here to stay.' It's been nice to see his growth for sure. right now that's a good place to be as a hitter."

Wednesday was Hoerner's 60th game played this season. His trip to the injured list was when he sprained his ankle colliding with an umpire. Hoerner moved up in the batting order to the fifth spot after hitting mostly sixth, seventh or ninth this season.

Morel also had a single in the fifth inning and was on base when Contreras hit his 13th home run of the season, making it 5-0. The rookie did have a tough at-bat in the eight inning when he fouled off a pitch that bounced off the dirt and hit him in the groin area. After taking some time to recover, Morel struck out on the next pitch.

Starting pitcher Justin Steele went five innings to get the win. He allowed 1 earned run, but was in some trouble with 6 hits and 3 walks.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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