‘Like a brother’: Cubs doubleheader vs. Brewers features MLB debuts, reunions
Nelson Velázquez and Christopher Morel, who both made their MLB debuts this month, have been teammates since 2018.
When the Cubs called up utilityman Christopher Morel from Double-A Tennessee two weeks ago, outfielder Nelson Velazquez had a feeling he wouldn’t be far behind.
Sure enough, Velazquez texted Morel on Sunday, saying, “See you soon.”
Morel said he texted back, “Stop kidding.” But Velazquez was serious. The Cubs were recalling him from Triple-A Iowa to make his major-league debut Monday.
They took the field together in both games of a doubleheader against the Brewers — Velazquez in right field behind Morel at second base.
“Nelson, for me, is like a brother, really,” Morel said through an interpreter. “Inside the baseball field, outside the baseball field. The only thing that’s missing is blood between us. We get along super well. He’s been there to support me, help me out. I’ve been there as well.”
The doubleheader — 7-6 and 3-1 Cubs losses — featured two reunions from the minors: Velazquez and Morel, and right-hander Matt Swarmer and catcher P.J. Higgins.
Swarmer started Game 1 in his MLB debut, allowing five hits and four runs (one earned) in six innings and striking out six.
“I had to soak it all in at first,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Swarmer’s reaction when he found out Higgins was catching him: “That’s awesome.”
Higgins, who debuted for the Cubs last year, had been catching Swarmer on and off since they were in Single-A Myrtle Beach in 2018. As they went over scouting reports, he reminded Swarmer they’d been doing this together for a long time.
“I was like, ‘This is your big-league debut — you’re going to be nervous,” Higgins said. “But I was like, ‘Just trust me back there, I’ve got you. Just do what you do, and don’t worry about anything else.’ ”
Their pairing worked well. The three unearned runs against Swarmer were the result of two errors behind him. Most of the damage against him came on a pair of homers.
“A real low heartbeat for a first big-league start,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Just having mistakes and things go wrong, and continue to make your pitches, continue to hold runners. It never felt like he sped up, which happens to a lot of guys. Just continued to control what he could control, and that definitely stands out from a guy making his first start, first time in the big leagues.”
Higgins provided a boost on offense with his first major-league homer in the fourth inning.
Velazquez singled in his first major-league at-bat in the second inning of Game 1, beating out a slow roller to the right side of the infield. It wasn’t the most predictable first knock for a hitter who left Triple-A tied for the most minor-league home runs (12) in the Cubs organization this year. But Velazquez — the 2021 Arizona Fall League MVP — said he focused in that league on his timing and two-strike approach to cut down on his strikeouts.
“I know there was some raw power in there that they were trying to tap into,” Ross said of Velazquez’s development, “and that the swing adjustments that he made and the work that he put in going into last year kind of put it all together for him, just being able to make more contact. He’s still got some of that in his game, but when you have that kind of power, that’s going to come.”
Morel, whom Velazquez called his “bestie,” extended his hitting streak to 10 games, the longest by a Cub in 2022. He has reached base in all 13 games he has played since his MLB debut May 17, tying Willson Contreras (2016) for the franchise record to start a career.
Said Velazquez: “He told me, ‘No matter where you’re at, just go there, have fun, be you, and you will see the success come true. Just have fun like you know how to do.’ ”
They had been teammates through different levels of the minors — their promotions staggered at times — since rookie ball in 2017. They began this season in Double-A before Velazquez moved up to Triple-A in early May.
“We always had the mentality that we were going to be together and do as well as possible,” Morel said. “The big leagues weren’t really in our heads at that point. We just wanted to do our best and then eventually get to the big leagues.”