CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs nearly turned a bad day into a horrible night. After learning they’d be without Marcus Stroman for the foreseeable future, it appeared as though the Cubs would be swept in a two-game set by the lowly Chicago White Sox. Instead, Christopher Morel launched a walk-off, three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth and flipped the script, sending the Wrigley faithful into a frenzy and the Cubs home happy as they won Wednesday night’s affair 4-3.
“What a great swing, great environment,” manager David Ross said. “Christopher Morel, he’s just so electric. That ball’s smoked. A line drive to get over the basket like that, that exit velocity, I haven’t even seen it all. Crazy, crazy swing.”
Perhaps the Cubs have their own internal data, but the ball was hit so hard that the exit velocity wasn’t even recorded by Statcast. But it sent a sonic boom through Wrigleyville.
“It was just electric,” Nick Madrigal said. “I thought initially off the bat it was too low to get out. But he hit probably as hard as you can possibly hit the ball. It just kept going and going. For that ball to get out in that situation, it’s just so much fun. The crowd went crazy, the guys went crazy, everyone was going in all different directions. That’s probably one of the most fun games to be a part of.”
Morel made sure that he enjoyed the moment as much as anyone. As the rocket line drive carried just over the basket in right-center field, Morel slowly raised his right hand in the air. Once it had cleared he rounded first nearly running full speed, took his helmet off and tossed it in the air, screaming like the 40,389 who were delirious in the stands. His jersey was off by the time he’d reached home, and it wasn’t long after he touched the plate that he was bare-chested, flexing on the field as the team enjoyed an exhilarating victory.
“He has fun playing the game and he shows it,” Michael Fulmer said. “Whether it’s with his eye black or giant hacks at the plate, everybody knows they’re going to get a show when Morel’s up to bat. In a crosstown rivalry like this, sending the Cubs fans happy is really something cool.”
CROSSTOWN WALK OFF! pic.twitter.com/E1EwOKdVWA
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 17, 2023
Morel, who often answers questions in English, had interpreter Fredy Quevedo by his side in the postgame clubhouse while talking to reporters.
“That’s a moment I can’t even translate into English,” Morel said through Quevedo. “I’m definitely very happy, very excited.”
After looking sloppy on defense and coming up short on offense for much of the game, the Cubs found themselves down 3-0 entering the eighth. Madrigal pinch hit to start the bottom half of that inning and drove a solo home run that barely reached the left-field basket.
By the ninth, the Cubs were still trailing by two, but a Cody Bellinger double and Dansby Swanson walk preceded Morel stepping to the plate and gave the team and crowd life.
In Tuesday’s 5-3 loss, Morel struck out on three pitches against White Sox closer Gregory Santos. Wednesday, he swung through a 100.5 mph fastball. Then chased a slider that dipped just below the zone. As he often does in those situations, Morel stepped out of the box and took a deep breath.
“Willson (Contreras) once told me that in those moments just stay in the eye of the hurricane,” Morel said through Quevedo. “Just think about what I’m doing in that moment. Don’t think about anything else. Focus on the moment, focus on myself and what I’m doing in that moment.”
Morel then took another slider off the plate to push the count to 1-2. Santos then left a 99.5 sinker over the heart of the plate and Morel slugged it to end the game.
“Yesterday he got me out,” Morel said. “It’s my turn.”
Morel still has moments where he chases too much and his strikeout rate remains high. But the extreme chase and deep chasms of poor plate appearances have dropped. There’s always room for improvement — he was in a 3-for-38 slump before a seventh-inning single — but Morel has taken real strides at the plate this year.
“What you’re witnessing is the growth throughout the season,” Ross said. “Everybody, no matter if it’s the last bat of your career, you have adrenaline. You have those moments when you’re on the big stage and you have a chance to do something special on the big stage. He harnesses that emotion better every time out it feels like. He doesn’t always get the big hit, but he just seems to be maturing and controlling the strike zone and putting his best swing on the pitches he’s looking for. When he’s swinging the bat well, our offense rolls.”
Morel’s homer won’t soon be forgotten, but it likely wouldn’t have happened if not for Fulmer pulling a Houdini act in the eighth. José Cuas started the inning by allowing a single and a pair of walks before giving way to Fulmer. In stepped Luis Robert Jr., the White Sox’s best player and the hero from Tuesday night.
“It’s almost comical to say when a guy like him is running in, bases loaded and nobody out, you’re like, ‘Go get ’em,’” Ross said. “We need some punch and got their best player at the dish in Robert.”
Fulmer needed just three pitches to strike out Robert. Then three more to send Yoán Moncada back to the dugout and then got ahead 0-2 on Andrew Vaughn, who laid off two chase sliders before going down swinging on a sinker at his knees.
“It feels good,” Fulmer said. “I pride myself on being ready anytime the Rossy decides. I had a feeling with the righties coming up that I’d have a chance if things didn’t go well. Just trying to throw strikes.”
A loss Wednesday would have stung. It’s one thing to lose a game to a bad team like the Cubs did Tuesday night. The White Sox played well and took that game. But the way Wednesday was shaping up, it seemed like the Cubs were giving away a winnable game to a bad team. Ian Happ had a costly error early on and the offense left runners in scoring position too often. But Javier Assad kept it close with six innings of three-run ball. Fulmer was brilliant, as were his bullpen mates Mark Leiter Jr. and Drew Smyly. Madrigal got the offense started and Morel finished it off, turning a would-be ugly loss into a breathtaking victory.
The next 10 games are against three teams all double digits under .500. The Cubs sit in the last wild-card spot and are just 2 1/2 games out of first. This needs to be the start of a nice string of victories. A win like Wednesday’s is one a team can look back on and point to as a reason it has a chance to make an October run.
“You can feel there’s something brewing in this clubhouse,” Madrigal said. “Games like this, to pull those out when it wasn’t looking good for most of the game. That’s when you know you got a special team that wins these kinds of games. It’s a lot of fun right now. We just gotta keep it going.”
(Photo of Christopher Morel: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)