Paul Sullivan: Pete Crow-Armstrong’s 2-run home run — his 1st big league hit — fuels Cubs to 3-1 win over Astros

CHICAGO — “Where’s the phenom?” coach Willie Harris yelled outside the Chicago Cubs clubhouse Thursday morning.

Moments later, Pete Crow-Armstrong appeared from out of the blue and followed Harris down the tunnel toward the cages.

One of the most touted Cubs prospects in a room increasingly full of them, Crow-Armstrong went hitless in 14 at-bats last season after his Sept. 11 debut, then struck out in his first two plate appearances Thursday against Houston Astros legend Justin Verlander, making it 0 for 16.

But 7 1/2 months after that heralded debut, Crow-Armstrong made his first major league hit a memorable one, cranking a two-run, go-ahead home run into the right-field bleachers in the Cubs’ 3-1 win over the Astros before 29,876 at a sun-chilled Wrigley Field.

Crow-Armstrong’s teammates hugged him up and down the dugout like it was graduation day. He simply called the feeling “freeing,” though he downplayed his emotions afterward. Either way, he can relax now, knowing the first hit is out of the way and a bright future lies ahead.

“I should’ve done that before,” he said. “That was what everyone was encouraging me to do. My boneheaded self finally decided to listen, I guess.”

Crow-Armstrong was called up from Triple-A Iowa on Wednesday to replace Cody Bellinger, who fractured two ribs Tuesday when crashing into the brick wall while trying to make a catch in center. Manager Craig Counsell said “expectations are put on (top prospects) that frankly aren’t fair” and that Crow-Armstrong just needs to “be part of winning baseball” and do the small things.

“Today he made a big contribution,” Counsell said. “But he can make small contributions, and those will be enough at this stage of his career.”

Crow-Armstrong, 22, said he never listened to all the hype, which was magnified by Top 100 lists, newspapers, social media and by the Cubs’ TV station.

“We all signed up for this,” he said. “It comes with the territory.”

Crow-Armstrong’s catchy nickname, “PCA,” was known by Cubs fans well before he made his debut. Dansby Swanson, who learned about dealing with great expectations as the No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft, agreed that it’s more difficult now than when he began.

“There are a lot of expectations at young ages, there are a lot of comparisons, there’s just a lot of everything,” Swanson said. “Sometimes the best thing you can do is let somebody be themselves and figure it out, not trying to be someone else, but be the best version of themselves.

“The positive spin on it is you can figure it out younger because you really have to do some soul-searching. ‘What is the best version of myself?’ I’ve seen him work toward that, and we’re excited to have him here.”

No matter how small a sample size it was in 2023, going into the offseason with a .000 on the back of your baseball card had to be tough to swallow.

“Look, the results early on always weigh heavier for us as players, whether we want to admit it or not,” Nico Hoerner said. “Whether it’s the beginning of the year or the beginning of your career, it’s hard to not let those grow into more than what they are.

“I’m sure that felt significant to him throughout the offseason, even though it was such a small sample, and he was pinch-hitting against good relievers. It’s a really hard way to start things out.”

The day began with a solid pitching duel between Verlander and Javier Assad, who allowed one run on four hits over 5 2/3 innings, reducing his ERA to 2.00 in a no-decision. Hoerner had three hits off Verlander, or two more than his manager did in his career. Counsell went 1 for 8 against Verlander — the one hit a home run.

Verlander was in his prime when Counsell retired 13 years ago, though the 41-year-old isn’t noticeably different today, other than his graying beard. He escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the first and another jam in the third after the first two men reached. In the fourth he struck out Miguel Amaya in a 13-pitch at-bat. It was vintage Verlander in his first start at Wrigley since 2012.

The Cubs tied the game 1-1 in the sixth on Amaya’s fly to right off Bryan Abreu that dropped in front of a sliding Kyle Tucker. Though Tucker got a force at second, Crow-Armstrong followed with his big shot to put the Cubs ahead.

“To turn around a fastball like that on a day when pretty much everything in the air was going 30 feet shorter than it was supposed to … ” Hoerner said. “That ball was supposed to go out on the street almost, and it was three rows deep. To hit a no-doubt home run on a day like that is incredibly impressive.”

Hayden Wesneski pitched 2 1/3 hitless innings to preserve the lead, starting the guessing game of who would close. Asked before the game whether Hector Neris was the closer, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy gave a long-winded answer that suggested anyone.

“Honestly, that’s more of a baseball thing than (my thinking),” Hottovy said. “I just want the best pitchers in the game when we need them in the game. The fact that a guy has to be labeled as a starter or a closer. … Good teams just go out and get outs whatever time you need them.”

But it was indeed Neris who entered despite needing to face two left-handed hitters starting off. He walked both before getting out of the inning, doing his best Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams impression.

So the Cubs swept the Astros and improved to 16-9 as they headed for Boston to begin a seven-game trip Friday at Fenway Park, where Shota Imanaga gets the call. But this day belonged to Crow-Armstrong, whose low-key demeanor afterward belied its importance in his climb to the big leagues.

“It was fun in the moment, but we’re on to the next,” he said. “We just took three. Bigger picture, more than anything. I’ll probably forget about that swing in three weeks anyways, if I’m scuffling or playing well.

“I don’t think it’s smart to get too high on that. I’ve got a lot more at-bats coming.”