Nico Horner is ‘the new mayor in town’: Cubs victory in the Finals seemed like a big moment

CHICAGO — Nico Horner looked like a character from the “Saturday Night Live” skit, sitting in front of his locker Monday night with a smile on his face and a cowboy hat on his head. La Bouche’s “Be My Lover,” a ’90s Eurodance song, blared from the sound system inside the Wrigley Field club as the Cubs enjoyed their first win of the young season.

“Yan (Gomez) put it on my head,” Horner said. “We have a kind of ceremonial hat that I think is meant for me. That’s what we go with. I’m not going to read too much into it.”

No chance, Nico. Not after besting all-star pitcher Luis Castillo, did the Cubs hold off a skyscraper hit by Jared Kilinick in the ninth inning and finally beat the Mariners with World Series aspirations. It ended at 9:17 p.m. when Hoerner hit a ball into right field for an RBI single that scored pinch runner Nick Madrigal, who stole third base on a risky play that made Gomez wonder if Madrigal “thought he was invisible.” This 3-2 victory under the new LED lights at Old Football Field looked like a game the Cubs were going to lose last April.

Excessive reactions occur at this time of year. But for better or for worse, these moments can be very revealing. It’s hard to remember the last time there was real joy or hype around this team. The Cubs might have been swept by the Cardinals when the crowd returned in full force to Friendly Confines in June of 2021, but that spike didn’t faze the fans and cheated the players and temporary workers before an 11-game losing streak forced the head of baseball operations Jed Hoyer to sell. At the trade deadline.

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A lot of the “it’s different here” messages felt forced. If you don’t win enough, slogans and tricks become a chore. But there was something refreshing about the smile on Horner’s face as he walked back to the locker room, noticed a bunch of reporters about Gomez and tossed his cowboy hat at the veteran catcher.

“I just saw the hat and said, ‘Yeah, he’s the new mayor in town,’” Gomez said. “Things like that happen naturally. I literally just saw it and grabbed it and said, “Hey, Niko should wear this to interviews.”

It’s clearly too soon to start trying to track down Jonathan Herrera, a utility player who once gained airtime for wearing a rally bucket on his head and a helmet with fake hands on top, to symbolize the celebration gesture the 2015 Cubs used during their shocking touchdown. Run to the National League Championship Series. But it’s a long season and foolish things are a much better sign than pointing fingers or answering questions about contracts and trade rumours.

Gomez, one of the first outfielders the Cubs would value over Wilson Contreras, continued to call for curveballs while Drew Smillie retired the first 10 batters he faced and limited the Mariners to one run across five innings. Five different Cubs relievers covered the next five innings as manager David Ross pressed the right bullpen. Cody Bellinger and Eric Hosmer — two former All-Stars who signed one-year deals after being released last season — have led back-to-back runs with timely hits. Gold Glove freshman shortstop Dansby Swanson played another key defensive game, fielding a ground ball cleanly and throwing decisively to third base to erase a leadoff double in the eighth inning.

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“Getting off to a good start is important for anyone,” Gomez said. “But at the same time, it’s important to understand what we’re building here. If we lose a series, if we lose two games, we can’t hang our heads. We’ve got a very good team, a very good way of culture, a very good way of having a fan base behind us in every game to hang our heads.” “We’ve built a team, top to bottom, that can really do that. We have a lot of experience here. When something happens, we have 10 to 15 guys who’ve already done it. We can move on to different things.”

Like Seiya Suzuki. When a team spends close to $100 million to acquire a player, his absence should be noticeable. That way with the Cubs and Suzuki, the Japanese outfielder who’s almost fully recovered from the strained left oblique that wiped out most of his spring training. This is a lever that can be pulled because the early schedule becomes increasingly more difficult.

Ross said the best projection would be to activate the Suzuki at some point during the team’s upcoming West Coast trip. A 5-4 start gives the Cubs a chance to hang out and create some momentum. Monday marked the beginning of a difficult period as the Cubs are scheduled to play the Mariners, Dodgers and Padres 13 times in 18 days. These three teams from the field of the playoffs last year should show just how well the Cubs close the gap after a $300 million-plus spending spree in the off-season.

“You just want to see how you measure up,” Ross said. “We have a lot of players who are ready to take on a challenge. They won’t back down from anyone.”

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Even Horner — who ended his three-year, $35 million contract extension before Opening Day to solidify his status as a regular starter at Wrigley Field — didn’t stick to the script one game at a time.

“I just felt so important to win that game,” Horner said, “just to know you can beat good teams in close games and do the extra game. All of those things matter.”

(Photo of Patrick Wisdom emptying water on Nico Horner after Monday’s win over the Mariners: Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today)

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