Nico Hoerner hopes recent grand slam shows way out of hitting funk

Cubs notebook: Michael Fulmer will start Saturday; Dansby Swanson is getting closer to a return.

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Nico Hoerner

Chicago Cubs’ Nico Hoerner runs the bases after hitting a grand slam against the Washington Nationals during the eighth inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Wednesday, July 19, 2023.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Nico Hoerner says he pretty much hasn’t taken a grounder at second base since shortstop Dansby Swanson went down with a bruised left heel July 5. The extra pregame defensive work he has been putting in to handle starting at shortstop every game since Swanson went on the injured list provides a bit of context to his slow month offensively.

‘‘I’ve definitely been late a lot in general recently,’’ Hoerner said amid struggles that have seen him hit .176/.256/.257 with an elevated strikeout rate in July.

In that vein, manager David Ross took extra encouragement from Hoerner’s late-inning grand slam Wednesday. Such a hit is always reason for optimism, but Ross especially liked Hoerner getting the barrel of the bat out in front and pulling an early-count fastball, breaking from a pattern of more defensive swings that saw him fouling off heaters to the first-base side.

But the breakout 2022 season that established Hoerner as a piece of the Cubs’ core was built on hitting line drives all over the field, and he doesn’t see growing pull-conscious as the path out of his funk.

With his timing off, Hoerner thinks examining his plate discipline and swing choices come before diving into mechanics. He is hitless but has drawn three walks in two games since his big blast, which he’ll take as a small indicator of progress right now.

‘‘I’ve had some pretty strong takes in general and a little bit better quality of contact,’’ Hoerner said. ‘‘For me, the best results come from keeping really simple thoughts of flush contact on pitches down the middle, and a natural spray comes from pitch location and speed.

‘‘When I’m at my best, there’s a lot of line drives to different parts of the field.’’

Fulmer to start

After listing their starters Saturday and Sunday as ‘‘to be announced’’ all week, the Cubs said reliever Michael Fulmer will start Saturday against the Cardinals.

Fulmer was the American League Rookie of the Year as a starter for the Tigers in 2016, but he was converted to full-time relief in 2021. He threw 15 pitches Friday, so it might not even be a multi-inning opener assignment.

Saturday normally would have been left-hander Drew Smyly’s turn in the rotation. But the Cardinals typically have powerful right-handed batters Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Willson Contreras near the top of their order, and righties have fared almost 100 points better than lefties against Smyly in terms of OPS during the course of his career.

Swanson update

Ross said there’s still hope Swanson might be activated from the IL during this series against the Cardinals. While Swanson is mostly ready to return to action, Ross said his running is still around ‘‘75%.’’

The prospect of Swanson having to test his left heel in a high-intensity game situation still provides some pause.

‘‘If he’s got to score from first or stretch a single into a double, that type of thing,’’ Ross explained. ‘‘[His] baseball activity is good. It’s just the running and what the implications of game state is.

‘‘Is [Swanson playing at diminished capacity] what’s best for us to win a baseball game? It doesn’t feel like that right now.’’

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