For new Chicago Cubs first baseman Michael Busch, game reps are proving to be all valuable

MESA, Ariz. — Michael Busch cleanly fielded the grounder and started to run toward first base to record the final out of the third inning Tuesday at Sloan Park when he pulled up.

Busch decided midstep to instead toss the ball to Justin Steele, who broke off the mound to cover first after seeing the Milwaukee BrewersChristian Yelich pull the ball to Busch. Steele cleanly caught the toss and just beat Yelich to the bag to end the inning. The sequence represented the type of instinctual play at first base that can be tough to create reps for in a nongame environment.

“You can’t replicate that in practice,” Busch said. “So it’s something you look back on and see it’s a close play. Yelich runs well so it’s always going to be a close play. … At the end of the day, you don’t want to rush things, and Steeley did a good job getting over.”

As Busch gets reacclimated to his new home at first base for the Chicago Cubs, those little moments when instincts must kick in will present the toughest challenges for the 26-year-old in the early going.

“There’s just a bunch of weird plays,” manager Craig Counsell said this week. “There’s a man on second and there’s a ground ball hit hard up the middle and that’s the play you’ve got to bust to be the cutoff man, but what if the shortstop makes a great play? You don’t have that play at another infield position — setups and footwork, holding a guy on when we’re not holding a guy on, the balance of keeping close but gaining depth as a defender.

“There’s just instinctual things that it can become harder and then receiving the baseball is something you do a lot at first base, which you don’t do a lot of at the other infield positions and the reps are really important.”

Although most of Busch’s playing time since the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the first round of the 2019 draft came at second and third base, he is familiar with his new position. He played first in 158 of his 194 starts for the University of North Carolina.

Busch is working to get comfortable with the nuances of the position. His main focus: how far he positions himself away from first base against right-handed hitters “while also not creating too much havoc over there and not being late” to receive throws. Major-league coach Jonathan Mota, who works with Cubs infielders, and the staff have challenged Busch every time he starts at first in a Cactus League game to try to push the limits of his range and test how far away from the bag he can comfortably position himself.

“(Busch) seems quiet, but there’s some confidence in there and he asks a ton of good questions,” Mota said.

The Cubs want Busch to extend his setup from first base until he gets to the point in-game at which he has an “oh, that was kind of tough” moment trying to get to the bag to catch a throw, then adjust his positioning from there. Busch’s arm strength and short, quick footwork also will allow him to be aggressive on throws to second base on double-play balls.

“Errors are going to happen, mistakes are going to happen. We cannot be afraid to make mistakes,” Mota said. “It’s hard to be perfect. You can be precise. You can be accurate, and he’s pretty accurate.”

The Gold Glove award-winning tandem of shortstop Dansby Swanson and second baseman Nico Hoerner certainly helps aid Busch’s transition too.

“Being together with those guys on a daily basis, you adjust to it,” Mota said. “You know how much time you have … those to guys up the middle, their internal clock is really good, which allows him to be more comfortable to say, OK, I have more time. And the speed of the ball and the runner will dictate that as well.

“At the end of the day, you have to be ready for the bad throws, the easy throws my 7-year-old can catch.”

The Cubs enter the season with arguably the best double-play combo in the majors and look to solidify their offensive and defensive production at the corners by locking in an everyday first baseman and third baseman with Busch and Christopher Morel, respectively. Busch has looked the part offensively, too, this spring with four of his seven hits going for extra bases.

The Cubs lineup becomes much more dynamic if Busch turns into the lefty slugger they need while providing steady defense at first.

“Baseball is such a failure that you can’t get wrapped up in it,” Busch said. “Nobody wants to be 0-for-4, but everybody in this room is going to be 0-for-4 at least once more in their career, so just dealing with that failure a little bit is always good for a player. You want to handle that within yourself.”