Cubs’ Nick Madrigal ‘in a lot better place’ since returning from IL

Madrigal entered play Thursday hitting .313 with a .421 on-base percentage this month.

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Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal had a rough start to the season but has hit his stride in recent weeks. File photo

Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal had a rough start to the season but has hit his stride in recent weeks. File photo

AP Photos

BALTIMORE — This time last year, second baseman Nick Madrigal had yet to travel to Wrigley Field to meet his new teammates after a surprise trade from the White Sox to the Cubs, and had only recently sat down with president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer in the stands of an Arizona Complex League game.

Now he has climbed up the Cubs’ batting order over the last couple of weeks, into the leadoff spot.

“Just put him up there [at the top of the order] to get him back as many at-bats as we can possibly see from him, working his way [back], with missing all the time he’s had,” manager David Ross said, complimenting Madrigal for his bat-to-ball skills and all-fields approach. “Get him consistent ABs and keeping him healthy.”

It has been a long road back from hamstring surgery for Madrigal, one that included a departure from the organization that drafted him, an MLB lockout, an early slump this season and a series of minor injuries.

“I feel like I’m just in a lot better place now than I was in the beginning of the year,” Madrigal told the Sun-Times this week.

His production at the plate has responded accordingly. Madrigal entered Thursday hitting .313, with a .421 on-base percentage, since the Cubs activated him from the 10-day injured list (left groin strain) a couple of weeks ago.

The Cubs are seeing a version of the player they’d targeted when they traded closer Craig Kimbrel to the Sox for Madrigal and young reliever Codi Heuer at the deadline last year. On the South Side, Madrigal posted a .340 batting average in his debut 2020 season and was hitting .305 when a torn right hamstring ended his season last June.

“You’ve seen little glimpses of it here, but you haven’t seen it yet,” Joel Wolfe, Madrigal’s agent, told the Sun-Times this week. “When you see it, you’ll know. He is a really exciting player.

Even Sox general manager Rick Hahn acknowledged to reporters on deadline day that his calls to Madrigal and Heuer must have come as a surprise and weren’t conversations he necessarily anticipated.

Then, just when Madrigal started to know his new teammates and the Cubs’ staff — visiting Wrigley in September and rehabbing at the Cubs’ spring-training complex in Arizona over the offseason — the lockout hit.

“I don’t wanna say it ruined everything,” Wolfe said, “but it really changed the course of this great experience he was having. . . . Now, all of a sudden, everybody’s on their own, and we’re having to bounce around to different places. So you know, it was tough.”

Madrigal’s struggles to start the season have been well documented. He has had two IL stints, for a strained low back and then strained groin. In May and June, his season batting average hovered between .210 and .235.

“Especially early on, I knew I fell into some bad habits,” Madrigal said of his swing mechanics. “When I’m going good, I’m on the attack in the batter’s box. And early in the year when I was kind of overthinking things, I was getting a little bit defensive in the box. And I’ve never been that way.”

His recent resurgence has been a combination of minor mechanical tweaks — moving back in the box, for one — and getting back to an aggressive approach. At the same time, he hasn’t overcorrected; he’s drawing walks more often than early in the season.

“You’re seeing production from somebody that’s getting back healthy and feeling good, and his legs are getting good and underneath him,” Ross said. “The approach looks right, he looks strong and his base is getting down the line really well. He’s playing good defense. Just the kind of player he knows he is and we believe he is, and so just seeing that play out is rewarding.”

Madrigal said his doctor told him it could take a year or two after the surgery for him to feel fully back to normal. He has had to take extra measures to get stretched out, and some days are better than others.

“It’s just one of those big procedures where it’s a constant battle,” he said, “and just nothing can quickly fix it. . . . But I feel like it’s just one of those things I have to deal with for now.”

He seems to have found a successful balance and routine. Madrigal has seven weeks left in the season to make this version of him the lasting memory of this year. But he’s not thinking about it like that.

“I’m kind of over trying to get games back and being frustrated that I’m not in there,” he said. ‘I’m just out there playing now and not worrying about anything other than trying to win ballgames out there.”

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