Mervis believed he wasn't a pitcher, and mashed his way to Cubs

The most important part of Matt Mervis' rise to the major leagues was not listening to the people around him.

"Going back to high school, I had plenty of coaches tell me I was a pitcher and that's my path moving forward," Mervis said before making his Cubs debut at Wrigley Field on Friday.

During his first two years at Duke, Mervis was a right-handed pitcher who posted a 6.29 ERA. He stood in the batter's box just 10 times during those two season, but was determined to convince the coaches he should be hitting. He certainly wouldn't be known as "Mash" Mervis today if he gave in to pitching.

"I trusted that I knew better than them," Mervis said. "I could tell when I got on the mound. Yeah, I had a good arm, but I threw like a third baseman. I didn't have great off-speed pitches. Every once in a while I would take a swing in-game and I would say, 'If I can just do that over and over again.'"

Fast forward a few years and Mervis mashed an RBI single in the eighth inning for his first major-league hit as the Cubs beat Miami 4-1. Naturally, it was the hardest hit ball of the day by any player, at 111.2 miles per hour. Overall, Mervis went 1-for-4 with 2 strikeouts and a ground out.

"That was fun," he said after the game. "I was hoping for the fourth at-bat, just trying not to overthink it."

Ian Happ had the biggest hit of the game, a 2-run homer in the fifth. Justin Steele (5-0) continued to dominate, giving up just the 1 run over 7 innings.

The turning point for Marvis came in the summer of 2019 when he played for the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod League, determined to prove his assessment was correct. On Friday, Mervis gave credit to Cotuit coach Mike Roberts for sticking with him.

"I struggled when I first got up there and Mike actually called my college coach and said, 'I don't know if hitting's for him,'" Mervis said. "So again, I had to work through that and I knew it would click soon and luckily it did. I think my leash was pretty short at that point."

Mervis ended up hitting .325 for Cotuit that summer, and when he returned to Duke in the fall, he was a first baseman, not a pitcher.

"I give Mike Roberts all the credit for being a professional hitter," he said. "As soon as I got there, he was hands-on and he started working on my swing. He was there hours early every day, setting up the machine for me, just so we could get work in."

The Washington D.C. native hit .274 during his junior year at Duke, then his senior season ended after 16 games due to the pandemic. He wasn't chosen in the five-round MLB Draft that year, but Cubs president Jed Hoyer insists Mervis was at the top of his list of position players to pursue as a free agent.

"I think we were fortunate we ended up getting a guy who if he plays the full season that year he might go much higher, he might be a third-rounder and this isn't as big a surprise," Hoyer said. "I think we were fortunate to get him. It's a good story and a good journey. There's a lot of randomness that happened in 2020."

Mervis had a rough start in the minors in 2021, then delivered the best numbers by a Cubs minor league last year since Kris Bryant in 2014. The Cubs wanted him to start this season in Triple A, in part to make sure last year was not a fluke.

They added veteran first baseman Eric Hosmer to remove any sense of urgency, but Hoyer admitted Mervis' strong performance in Iowa, combined with the Cubs' recent offensive slump, sped up the timeline for promotion.

"There's no perfect answers to when a guy's ready," Hoyer said. "He had 112 plate appearances in Iowa. It felt like the right time for the team and it felt like the right time for him."

Mervis got the call from Cubs vice president of player development Jared Banner on Thursday and admitted there was both shock and disbelief when he heard the news.

His parents were on their way to watch him play in Columbus, Ohio with the Iowa Cubs this weekend, so he quickly called and told them to change plans. They had to get from Baltimore, where they were catching a flight to Columbus, to National Airport in D.C., but it all worked out.

As one would expect, the initial phone conversation between Mervis and his mother Ellen got a little teary.

"There have been some lows," Mervis said. "College was not easy for me, the first couple years; 2021, my first year (in pro ball) was not easy.

"She's been my go-to when things weren't going great. She definitely deserved the first call and it was hard to hear her get emotional and not get emotional myself."

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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Matt Mervis takes the field Friday at Wrigley. Matt Dirksen/Chicago Cubs
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