If big-league hitting is a puzzle, Cubs’ Matt Mervis figures he has the smarts to solve it

Hunkered at a clubhouse table with pen and paper, stroking his chin, the rookie looked as much like a retiree in a coffee shop as he did a lefty slugger with easy Sheffield Avenue power.

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New York Mets v Chicago Cubs

The Cubs’ Matt Mervis hits his first Wrigley Field home run on May 23, 2023.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Cubs first baseman Matt Mervis crumpled up a photocopy of the USA Today crossword puzzle Friday and chucked it into a wastebasket.

Frustrated? Flustered? Flummoxed?

No, just finished. Mervis completed the puzzle, eventually wrestling the most difficult answers into submission. Did you know the author of ‘‘The Wretched of the Earth’’ was a philosopher by the name of Frantz Fanon? Or that Nikhil Banerjee was a renowned sitarist? Or that there was a movie several years back called ‘‘Tangerine’’? Yeah, well, neither did Mervis until he kept plugging away with a blue pen in the clubhouse before the opening game of a series against the Reds.

‘‘Friday puzzles are hard,’’ he said. ‘‘This was a tough one, but I pieced it together.’’

Mervis became a daily doer of crosswords as a minor-leaguer. He’s into Wordle, the immensely popular New York Times word game. The Times crossword — the gold standard — remains a bit out of his league, but Mervis is only 25. He’ll get there.

‘‘I have fun with it,’’ he said.

There’s something about a rookie nerding out over word games and puzzles that’s just plain charming. Hunkered at a clubhouse table with pen and paper, stroking his chin, Mervis looked as much like a retiree in a coffee shop as he did a lefty slugger with easy Sheffield Avenue power.

Mervis is sure that power is going to show up in a big way for the Cubs. He has a modest two home runs and seven RBI in 17 games since being called up for his big-league debut this month, but this is the same ‘‘Mash’’ Mervis who torched minor-league pitching at three levels in a monster 2022. In 161 minor-league games last season and the first month of this one, Mervis belted 42 homers and drove in 147 runs.

‘‘It’s coming,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve had some bad luck, hit a lot of balls hard right at people. But I feel like I’m adjusting pretty quickly. I think I’m having good at-bats. It’s just a matter of finding holes instead of gloves.’’

Holes. Bleachers. The pavement beyond the bleachers. All of it works.

Mervis is a burly 6-4, not unlike former Cub Anthony Rizzo, but he doesn’t see physical gifts or pure talent driving his big-league future. A thinking-man’s ballplayer is how he views himself. Mervis isn’t just a word nerd; he’s an all-around smart cookie.

‘‘I like to think so,’’ he said. ‘‘I’d say I’m a little more the analytical type.’’

Raised near Washington, D.C., by parents who are attorneys, Mervis excelled at a top prep school before earning a political-science degree from Duke. His focus there was political economy — the give-and-take between politics and markets within and between nations — and he added a management certificate to his academic résumé before turning pro.

‘‘I enjoy learning about what I’m interested in,’’ he said.

That love of learning informs his approach to hitting and probably was at the heart of his explosion up the ranks of Cubs prospects. It’s also one of the biggest reasons to bet on his success at the highest level of the sport. Mervis is bright, bookish and serious — helpful qualities, one only can assume, though perhaps not always.

‘‘I can dive too deep into analyzing everything and get in my own way at times,’’ he said.

Manager David Ross describes Mervis as being ‘‘deep into his own process’’ and an ‘‘introvert.’’

‘‘I think he really, really grinds hard mentally a lot of times,’’ Ross said. ‘‘But I think the more he gets comfortable and continues to prove to himself that he belongs, you’re going to see an even better version of what we’ve already seen.’’

Mervis struck out twice Friday against Reds starter Hunter Greene and had a hard-hit fielder’s choice to show for his third and final at-bat. But Greene was electric, striking out 11 in six no-hit innings, and the Cubs were shut out 9-0. Sheffield Avenue was just a rumor.

Is a power surge coming from Mr. Smart Guy? He’s looking forward to it.

‘‘This is the best job in the world,’’ he said. ‘‘I get to wake up and go work on my craft instead of sitting at a desk. Happiness is through the roof. I couldn’t ask for anything other than this.’’

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