About 15 reporters surrounded Jorge Soler at his locker before his Wrigley Field debut. The anticipation had been building ever since the Cubs made the Cuban outfielder a priority in the first several weeks of the Theo Epstein administration.
The Cubs wouldn’t be outbid, creating great expectations and giving Soler a nine-year, $30 million contract in the summer of 2012.
“Since I signed, I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Soler said through interpreter Jose Flores, the organization’s infield coordinator. “I’m ready for it.”
Soler didn’t disappoint the Labor Day crowd of 32,054 that saluted the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars and booed Ryan Braun during a 4-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Soler gave his team another jolt of energy and doubled twice off Brewers starter Jimmy Nelson, who began the season as Milwaukee’s No. 1 prospect in the Baseball America rankings. Hoping to accelerate the learning curve for their young core players with a brutal September schedule, the Cubs (62-76) knocked the Brewers (73-64) out of first place for the first time since April 5.
Soler is now the third player in the last 100 years to have an extra-base hit in each of his first five big-league games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The others are up-and-down Boston Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks (2012) and Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter (1938).
“That’s an unbelievable player,” said third baseman Luis Valbuena, who hit cleanup in front of Soler and blasted his 16th home run. Valbuena’s face lit up while talking about Soler: “You’ll see a lot of stuff with him.”
The organist played The Doors’ “Light My Fire” when Soler stepped to the plate for his first at-bat in the second inning. Soler doubled into the right-field corner and scored easily on Welington Castillo’s broken-bat single into left field, the blue helmet flying off his head as he sprinted to home plate.
“Felt really good,” Soler said afterward. “Felt (right) at home.”
Soler’s health has been a major question mark, and the Cubs will continue to be cautious after a series of hamstring injuries sidelined him earlier this season.
“Physically, he’s fine,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s been on a graduated program, basically, on games played. I don’t think he’s played more than four or five games in a row, so that’s the table we’ve been using, and we will continue to use it.”
That became the backdrop when Soler led off the sixth inning by lifting a ball that kept flying out to right-center field, slamming off the ivy. Soler slowed up near second base and then kicked it back into gear when Brewers centerfielder Gerardo Parra bobbled the ball at the warning track.
Standing off third base moments later, Soler got hit in the right thigh by Castillo’s foul ball. Soler gave athletic trainer PJ Mainville the thumbs-up sign and the Cubs could breathe a sigh of relief.
“It hit him in the thigh – it hit him with a lot of meat,” Renteria said. “It stings anytime you get hit with a ball that’s probably coming about 110 miles an hour. It stung him a little bit, but he was fine.”
Jacob Turner, who limited Milwaukee to one run in 6.1 innings, knows what big-time hitters look like after coming up with the Detroit Tigers and getting traded to the Miami Marlins before starting over on the North Side.
“For a guy that just got called up, it seems like (Soler’s) got a really good approach at the plate, which is what I’ve been most impressed with,” Turner said. “Obviously, he’s got a lot of power and everything like that, but I think that approach he has at the plate will be the biggest key for him in the future.”
The league is going to adjust and start attacking Soler’s weaknesses, seeing if he can hit the breaking ball, but the Cubs love this age-22 combination – raw athletic gifts and a refined understanding of the strike zone and hitting mechanics.
“He stays inside the pitches really, really well,” Renteria said. “And then he stays through it. He really gets extension. He is what you would call short to the ball and long through it.
“It’s the finish that gets you the last little bit of life that you end up creating. But he’s 6-5. This is a big man that leverages himself in the box and creates some force.”
This won’t last forever, but Soler’s gone 10-for-19 with three homers, four doubles and seven RBI in five games, giving hope to Cub fans and showing The Plan is coming into focus.
“It’s really not as easy as it looks,” Soler said. “I’m just very conscious at the plate right now and trying to make the best out of it and taking it pitch by pitch.”