January 30, 2023

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Morel thriving as Cubs' new table-setter

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CHICAGO — The Cubs could get used to Christopher Morel at the top of the lineup. Since Chicago made the switch to move its No. 21 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, to the leadoff spot, Morel has not disappointed.

His leadoff single on Saturday night led to another Cubs hot start, setting the table for a Patrick Wisdom RBI double and two first-inning runs. Those two runs proved to be enough in their 5-1 victory against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field in the Crosstown Series.

“He’s done a really nice job and goes out and performs,” manager David Ross said of Morel. “I think when you come to work every day like he does, with a good attitude and energy and goes out and is learning on a daily basis and getting better at baseball, there’s no expectation for him.”

Ross’ decision to make a change at the top of the lineup came in the second game of the series against the Reds on Tuesday. At that time, Willson Contreras was dealing with a hamstring injury and Rafael Ortega was struggling at the plate — batting just .161 (5-for-31) over his last nine games.

Both Ortega and Contreras have been the usual leadoff hitters for the Cubs all season. But the Cubs needed a spark elsewhere.

And the team got just that.

Morel has now led off for the Cubs in four straight games. And in all four contests, he started with getting on base and scoring — three hits, one walk and four runs scored. He also has stolen bases in the first inning in back-to-back games.

“I think it tells me that he’s authentic,” Ross said of Morel’s energy. “I’m sure he was doing it in Single-A and Double-A. That’s who he is. And he doesn’t know how to be anybody else. I think it’s so refreshing.”

Morel’s ability to get on base at the start of games has led to nine first-inning runs during that stretch. The last time the Cubs scored in the first inning in four consecutive games was May 9-13, 2018.

“It’s amazing,” Morel said. “I help my team, and the team [brings me in]. The adjustment for me [at leadoff] isn’t difficult. The zone hasn’t changed — just see the ball and put it in play.”

Since the switch, Morel has not only started the team off right, but he has also displayed some of the best at-bats at the top of the order this season. To start games, the Cubs’ utility man has two first-pitch singles, a single after a seven-pitch at-bat — on a 108.1 mph rocket — and a nine-pitch walk.

Morel also walked twice on Saturday. And the patience at the plate is what makes Ross most proud of the rookie.

“He’s got a nice swing,” said Ross. “But the thing that stood out to me for Chris is the walks. The patience and swinging at his pitch.”

That plate discipline has helped Morel thrive in tough two-strike situations — when he goes into protect mode. In the fourth inning, after battling in a 2-2 count against Johnny Cueto, the rookie bent his knees, got low and fought his way through the at-bat.

“I try the two-strike approach,” Morel said. “Try to put the ball in play, not trying too much, not trying too big. Just shortening it and being under control. Every pitch, I breathe and concentrate on the next pitch. It helps me a lot.”

There were actually two examples of that on Saturday night: one in the fourth inning and one in the ninth. Morel won both battles and drew walks. The rookie continues to battle in his plate appearances. He now has five hits, four walks, and four runs scored with two doubles in four games from the leadoff spot.

“Being able to take a walk in these moments really stood out to me,” Ross said. “[He’s] off to a great start.”

His ability to bring his energy to the plate from the get-go and strike first-pitch fastballs — like he did against Cueto’s sinker in the first — has helped the team get off to good starts as of late. The biggest thing about Morel: He is always ready.

“I don’t think he took a pitch until his fourth at-bat,” Ross said. “But Johnny [Cueto] is filling up the strike zone, and he’s ready to hit.”

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