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Chicago baseball report: Cubs hope Seiya Suzuki’s hot start carries over — while Luis Robert Jr. getting ‘better and better’ for White Sox

Chris Coduto/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Even as spring training winds down, there’s something new in store at Chicago White Sox camp as Drew Thorpe is slated to start Monday against the Cleveland Guardians. The right-hander was one of the four players acquired from the San Diego Padres on Wednesday for pitcher Dylan Cease.

The Chicago Cubs made five more camp cuts Sunday ahead of Monday’s off day. They optioned right-hander Keegan Thompson and first baseman Matt Mervis to Triple-A Iowa while three nonroster invitees — right-hander Cam Sanders, catcher Bryce Windham and infielder Chase Strumpf — were assigned to minor-league camp. The Cubs have 42 players remaining in big-league camp, including 11 NRIs, with 10 more days until the team departs for Arlington, Tex.

Every Monday and Friday during spring training, Tribune baseball writers will provide an update on what happened — and what’s ahead for the Cubs and Sox. Want more? Sign up for our new Cubs and White Sox newsletters.

Cubs hope Seiya Suzuki’s hot spring carries into the season

It has taken Seiya Suzuki to Year 3 with the Cubs to experience his first normal spring training.

After signing weeks into camp in 2022 and then an oblique injury sidelining him most of last spring, Suzuki has appreciated having time to work on the minutiae of his swing and get comfortable in the batter’s box over the last month. Suzuki has picked up where he left off at the end of last season. He’s slugged three doubles and three home runs in the Cactus League, including two Saturday against the Kansas City Royals, while posting a .481 on-base percentage through 10 games.

“I feel really good,” Suzuki said through interpreter Toy Matsushita. “There’s no injuries that are bothering me right now and I’ve been able to focus on my game. So I’m really, really excited for what’s ahead.

“I’ve been able to become really, really aggressive at the plate. I feel like I need to work on my reactions when I whiff at the plate and when I take those balls. Those are things I want to work on.”

The reality is it’s unclear whether there is a correlation between a strong spring performance leading to a great start in the regular season. But the Cubs will certainly take how locked in Suzuki has looked as they enter the last full week of spring games.

“I think every player would rather have a good spring training, but we’ve all seen the exact opposite too,” manager Craig Counsell said. “Look, Seiya is having a great spring. He’s swinging the bat. It’s fun to watch. It’s impressive. He’s hitting the ball hard a lot and started to drive the ball.”

Sox All-Star CF Luis Robert Jr. coming around at the plate

LaMonte Wade Jr. appeared to have an extra-base hit during the fifth inning Saturday at Camelback Ranch. But White Sox center fielder Luis Robert Jr. ran to the warning track and made a nice over-the-shoulder catch to rob the San Francisco Giants first baseman.

As opening day inches closer, Robert is looking like he’s in regular-season form defensively and coming around at the plate.

He homered twice Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds, with the second clearing the center field batter’s eye at Goodyear Ballpark.

“Doesn’t surprise me anymore,” manager Pedro Grifol said the following day. “(Hitting coach) Marcus (Thames) was talking about him and I said, ‘Man, you haven’t seen anything yet.’

“This kid is capable of doing things you’ve probably never seen on the field before, and then he hits one over the batter’s eye. You can see the timing, little by little, getting better and better and better.”

Robert entered Sunday with a .176 average (6-for-34) with two home runs and three RBIs in Cactus League 13 games. He said earlier this spring he was too anxious, which led to swinging at pitches out of the zone.

“Now, I’m just getting to that rhythm for feeling more comfortable hitting the pitches in the strike zone,” Robert said through an interpreter, “and when I’m able to do that on a consistent basis, I’m going to be able to do even more damage than I did last year.”

Number of the week: 9

The Sox showed some power in back-to-back games last week against the Reds and Milwaukee Brewers. They hit five home runs, including the two by Robert, in a 14-1 win against the Reds on Tuesday. They hit four more the next day, beating the Milwaukee Brewers 15-4.

Week ahead: Cubs

  • Monday: Off

  • Tuesday: vs. Diamondbacks, 8:05 p.m., Marquee

  • Wednesday: at Athletics, 3:05 p.m., Marquee

  • Thursday: at Rockies, 3:10 p.m.

  • Friday: vs. Giants (SS), 3:05 p.m., Marquee; at Giants, 3:05 p.m.

  • Saturday: vs. Brewers, 3:05 p.m., Marquee

  • Sunday: at Mariners, 3:10 p.m., Marquee

When Jameson Taillon woke up with a stiff back March 9, he went through his normal pregame routine ahead of his Cactus League debut and felt great after long toss and his bullpen warmup. All it took was one pitch as he took the mound to feel something tweak in his lower back. Taillon was in rough shape the first two to three days after the start, but is feeling good as he ramps up throwing.

Taillon estimated he will throw a bullpen Tuesday or Wednesday.

“I think we avoided anything super serious, but obviously just crappy that happened at that time,” Taillon said Sunday.

Taillon isn’t sure what triggered the back issue, something that has twice bothered him before in his career. It’s unclear if the ailment is related to the hamstring problems he dealt with at the beginning of camp. He also slipped and fell the day before, on March 8, while throwing plyo balls.

“So maybe that put me in a kind of compromised spot, not 100% sure,” Taillon said. “But we’re attacking that as a total thing, not just treating the back. We’re doing a lot of different things to try to prevent it from happening.”

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Taillon hopes he will require only a minimum 15-day injured list stint, which would set him up to rejoin the rotation at the beginning of the Cubs’ West Coast trip in the second week of April. The Cubs possess the starting pitching depth to handle Taillon’s absence. And although he knows he doesn’t need to rush back, Taillon isn’t thrilled about a delayed start.

“It’s still crappy because I don’t like the idea of people doing my job,” Taillon said. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to my teammates to be out there and to take the ball. That’s what I’m getting paid for. … We do have that depth and we’re going to use everyone at some point throughout the year. So let’s get this right, treat it properly. Don’t rush, don’t risk hurting something else. So from that perspective, it makes me feel really good.”

Week ahead: White Sox

  • Monday: vs. Guardians, 3:05 p.m.

  • Tuesday: Off

  • Wednesday: vs. Reds, 3:05 p.m., whitesox.com

  • Thursday: at Royals, 3:05 p.m.

  • Friday: vs. Athletics, 3:05 p.m.; at Angels, 3:10 p.m.

  • Saturday: vs. Mariners, 3:05 p.m., whitesox.com

  • Sunday: at Rockies, 3:10 p.m.

Michael Kopech touched 100 mph in his first relief appearance this spring Saturday against the Giants.

“It was coming out good,” he said afterward. “I still was spraying early, kind of settled down. I got to be a lot more aggressive coming out there for one inning. It was fun.”

The Sox announced Kopech’s move from the rotation to the bullpen on Thursday. Entering in the fourth Saturday, he got two flyouts and a groundout in his 1-2-3 inning. While he has experience in the bullpen, including three relief outings in 2023, the adjustments will continue.

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“I got to play the (relief) role a little at the end of last season,” Kopech said. “It’s always different, not exactly used to it right now. I had to get going quick, had about 10 pitches in the bullpen before I was in the game. So getting used to going fast again is something that will be the main adjustment.

“But other than that the game is still the game. Coming in with a little more fire, I guess. But other than that, it’s still get the guys out.”

What we’re reading this morning

Quotable

“He’s skilled. He’s a true pitcher and when I say that, skilled at reading swings and adjusting pitch-to-pitch and making kind of good choices within that space, which is just hard to do and generally is a sign of experience and at a young age I think he does that really well.” — Counsell on Cubs right-hander Javier Assad