PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Maybe Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler would have been in the lineup anyway, but on a day when injured second-year man Kyle Schwarber definitely would have been in left field, Soler came through in his place. Soler hit a go-ahead home run in the sixth inning to break a 3-3 tie with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday, then added another RBI in the seventh to help put the game away for the Cubs 7-3.
“His at-bats got better over the course of the game,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “He has two home runs off [Shelby] Miller prior to today and I really liked him in that lineup obviously for that reason.”
Forget the home run for a second, the more impressive plate appearance came an inning later with men on first and third and one out. Anthony Rizzo had just struck out, failing to get a man home from third with less than two outs. Could Soler come through where Rizzo couldn’t? Usually it’s the latter player picking up the former one along with his other teammates. But Soler muscled a ball out to right field for a sacrifice fly to score an insurance run.
“That’s what we need from him, those kind of mental at-bats,” Maddon said. “You can stay in the cage as long as you want or take as many swings as you want. That’s not going to matter. It’s about what you’re thinking. And those are really well thought-out at-bats by our group. We have to get Jorge there because he’s very capable of it. We’ve seen it in the past. We get him there with those really strong mental at-bats, sky’s the limit for him.”
The message to Soler is clear: Keep thinking the game at the plate. Do what’s called for in the moment. Already Soler has looked better in situational hitting than he did perhaps all of last year. Last weekend in Las Vegas, he flew out deep enough with the bases loaded and one out in an exhibition contest to plate a run. A day later, he brought home another one from third with less than two outs -- this time for real against the Los Angeles Angels. Then came Sunday’s game.
Last year, Soler struggled mightily in situational hitting, bringing in a runner from third with less than two outs just 36 percent of the time. That was worse than the Cubs' league-worst average of 40 percent. In the first week, he’s 2-for-2 in those opportunities. He’s not quite where the Cubs want him to be at the plate -- he struck out with men on in the first on Sunday -- but he’s showing some positive signs. That’s all you can ask for right now.
“Obviously with Schwarber going down it’s really tough to replace a guy like that,” said Sunday’s winner on the mound, Jake Arrieta. “But when you have a young guy with the talent that Soler has, it makes you feel pretty good where you stand.”