Column: Chicago Cubs — and Christopher Morel — provide their own fireworks in home opener win

The 149th home opener in Chicago Cubs history was probably not too different from many of the previous 148 openers, with the exception of a pyrotechnic display outside the dugout that nearly burned their new, $40 million manager.

It was a cold and blustery day in Chicago, like most of the others. Old heroes were celebrated as though they never took off a Cubs uniform, which is standard operating procedure at Wrigley Field.

And a crowd of 40,072 fans welcomed the new season by putting the previous year’s collapse in the rearview mirror, looking forward to the promise of warm, summer days and a team that can start and finish the season better than it did in 2023.

As home openers go, their 5-0 win over the Colorado Rockies was everything the Cubs could have hoped for.

Their two biggest new free agents, manager Craig Counsell and left-hander Shota Imanaga, enjoyed their debuts at the Friendly Confines. Imanaga threw six scoreless innings with nine strikeouts in his first major league start, taking a no-hitter into the sixth and allowing two hits on the day.

“Obviously a tremendous outing for Shota,” right fielder Seiya Suzuki said through an interpreter. “Not just me, but the whole team expects that out of him. Being able to disregard the conditions, he was amazing. Props to him.”

Counsell earned his first home win as Cubs manager, after surviving a portable fireworks device outside the dugout that spewed sparks in the air during the pregame introductions.

“I cut the corner too sharp I guess, felt a little eyebrow singe,” Counsell said. “Scared me a little. I didn’t know they were popping fireworks out there, honestly.”

Former manager Al Spalding probably didn’t have to worry about having his eyebrows singed at the franchise’s home opener back in 1876. No harm, no foul, but the Cubs’ business operations wizards may want to think twice before trying to make Wrigley into something it’s not meant to be.

Fireworks aside, it was also a day for fans to experience all the feels.

Cubs fans rejoice at home opener: ‘High holy day in baseball’s cathedral’

Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, looking strong and confident while battling prostate cancer, was feted while throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Departed third baseman Kris Bryant, still beloved three years after being traded in the 2021 summer sell-off, received the annual standing ovation in his return to Wrigley. And late clubhouse manager Tom “Otis” Hellman, who was scheduled to retire before opening day, was memorialized on the left field video board before the game.

By the time the expected rain began in the seventh inning, the Cubs were comfortably ahead, and many fans left after Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins and Andre Dawson led the singing during the seventh-inning stretch, satisfied they got their money’s worth.

Home openers are always hyped more than they need to be, and Counsell said beforehand he wasn’t nervous heading into his Wrigley debut as Cubs’ manager.

“Probably more nervous that I get lost around here than once the game starts,” Counsell said before the game.

Counsell successfully navigated the maze leading to his clubhouse office, then managed to pull the right strings in his home debut. With Imanaga dealing, and the Cubs scoring three runs on Christopher Morel’s sixth-inning single that turned into a Little League home run thanks to Nolan Jones overrunning the ball in left, there were few tough decisions to make.

When we last saw the Cubs at Wrigley, a warm afternoon on Sept. 24, they beat the Rockies for a three-game sweep to maintain the third National League wild-card spot, a game ahead of the Miami Marlins. FansGraphs’ projection gave them a 55.5% chance of making the playoffs.

Then came the nightmarish series in Atlanta, which dashed their playoff hopes and ultimately led to the shocking firing of manager David Ross. Counsell arrived in November as the new manager, and the late return of free agent Cody Bellinger near the start of spring training helped salvage an otherwise low-key offseason for president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer.

It took less than five innings on opening day in Texas for disaster to strike in the form of a Justin Steele hamstring injury, leaving the Cubs without their designated ace. A poor start by Kyle Hendricks and a short outing by Jordan Wicks put added pressure on Imanaga to preserve the bullpen Monday.

“We have to figure it out,” Hoyer said. “No one is going to feel sorry for us. You do need depth. We didn’t hope to be tested this early, but we are going to be, and some guys are going to have to step up. Wicks did great (Sunday). I don’t know how many pitches he lost because of errors, but certainly he should have been able to go deeper in that game, given how he threw the ball. And obviously, Steele getting hurt (is a challenge).

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“But we’re going to have to go deeper into games. We can’t push our bullpen that much … We’ve got to go deeper into games. You can’t get 12-15 outs a night. It’s too much.”

Imanaga did what he needed to do, throwing a shutout over 92 pitches and leaving it for the bullpen. After singles by Ian Happ and Suzuki to start the sixth inning, Morel singled to left and Jones let it get past him as both runners scored. Morel stopped at third but turned it back on after Jones’ errant relay throw got away.

“He’s the guy carrying us right now,” Suzuki said of Morel. “He’s obviously in a really good spot, and when the chance comes you want that guy at the bat.”

Morel, hitting .412 in four games while still trying to get a handle at third base, didn’t make the opening-day roster last year despite a good spring.

That demotion made this moment even more special.

“It was fun to watch, and I watched the video after the game, and it was super fun, too,” Morel said. “I really enjoyed it. I saw the runners celebrating, and my teammates going crazy for me in the dugout.

“My first opening day here in Chicago, and it’s one that I’ll never forget. Thank God for giving me an opportunity, thank Counsell for trusting me to play, and thank the fans for supporting me like they do. It was an amazing day.”

It was only one game, but we learned a lot about the Cubs after the home opener, including the biggest lesson of the day:

Leave the fireworks to Morel.