Pete Crow-Armstrong’s first hit was an exhale moment for Cubs’ top prospect

BOSTON — Nearly every Chicago Cubs fan knew who Pete Crow-Armstrong was before he ever took an at-bat with the big-league club. That’s just how life is for top prospects in today’s world. The publicity they receive grows by the year, and the hype surrounding Crow-Armstrong was hard to miss.

“For young players today and players that achieve the ‘prospect status,’ that’s just a real thing right now,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “It can put expectations on a player that frankly aren’t fair. Just understanding that the game is difficult, that his contributions — just do what you’re good at. That’s enough for this team, and it’ll help us win. It’s hard. Pete just being a part of winning baseball is all he wants, and it’s all we’re asking for.”

Public lists had Crow-Armstrong, who turned 22 in March, atop Cubs prospect rankings and as a consensus top-25 prospect. For his part, Crow-Armstrong didn’t let the outside noise get to him. His internal drive was enough pressure.

“It’s all made-up bulls— anyways,” Crow-Armstrong said. “It doesn’t help me get here. The prospect stuff was fun, Futures Game and whatnot. But the end goal is to stay up here. Any expectations were put on by myself. Those weighed on me more than anything.”

The counter to the hype is prospect fatigue. Crow-Armstrong has been a name to watch for Cubs fans since the team traded Javier Baéz to the New York Mets in the summer of 2021. He put together a big 2022, had an outstanding summer in 2023 and made his debut last September during the Cubs’ failed run for the playoffs. However, Crow-Armstrong went hitless in 19 plate appearances during that brief call-up. That, combined with an uninspiring spring training stint, led many to jump off the Crow-Armstrong bandwagon.

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Pete Crow-Armstrong notches his first big-league hit, a two-run homer in a 3-1 victory against the Astros on April 25. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Crow-Armstrong has always been a prospect who brings more to the table than his bat. He brings an elite glove at a prime position (center field) and plus speed that makes him a weapon on the basepaths. But watching his at-bats last fall gave some pause about his ability to handle MLB pitching. Getting a taste of the bigs and not getting that first hit out of the way was something Crow-Armstrong had to sit with all winter.

“It wasn’t off my mind completely,” Crow-Armstrong said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t bothered by myself and the lack of offensive production last year. But taking a step back and realizing that there’s nothing wrong with my swing, there are other areas I need to get better in, and using my time in the offseason and earlier this year in Triple A to think about those things.”

Crow-Armstrong didn’t want to mess with his mechanics drastically. Instead, he realized he needed to attack his pitch rather than trying to force the action.

“My swing is efficient when I swing at stuff that my swing will work with,” Crow-Armstrong said. “I wasn’t really doing that (last year). I think I have better control over my own at-bats now. I don’t feel as impatient when I’m not in a positive count or impatient to get to a positive count. Those are steps that help me more than anything because it lets my swing play.”

Crow-Armstrong finally broke through with his first hit Thursday, and it was a significant one. With the Cubs and Houston Astros tied at 1-1 in the sixth inning, Crow-Armstrong hammered a four-seam fastball — the pitch that had befuddled him during his short time in the bigs last season — into the bleachers to put his team up by two. It was a big exhale moment for the rookie for so many reasons.

“Absolutely,” Crow-Armstrong said when asked if it was a relief to finally get that hit. “Anybody would probably feel like that. I had a good amount of time in between. It felt great. But the best part of that was coming back in the dugout and feeling all the love.”

Then, Friday in Boston, Crow-Armstrong delivered two more hits. In Saturday’s 17-0 blowout loss to the Red Sox, he knocked a double off the Green Monster. In general, he looks more comfortable and less overwhelmed than during his first call-up.

“I think we all would agree after his first hit there was a deep breath,” Counsell said. “I don’t know if that explains why he hit two balls hard (Friday) night, I don’t. But I do think when you’re trying to get your first big-league hit and you do, that’s a huge deal. You do relax a little bit after that.”

Counsell might have doubts, but Crow-Armstrong felt sure there was a change once that hit came.

“I wish I didn’t feel like I needed that swing to help my next at-bats,” Crow-Armstrong said. “It’s funny; it didn’t need to be a home run. It was the situation more than the hit itself. If that was a sac fly, it would have made me just as happy. But getting the first one out of the way really does help.”

Now Crow-Armstrong needs to carry it forward. He’s well aware that he’s only with the team because Cody Bellinger and Seiya Suzuki are hurt. He understands he’s not taking their jobs when they get healthy. But in the meantime, he knows he can help the team win in a multitude of ways: on defense, on the basepaths and, yes, with the bat too.

“I’m going to stay very even-keeled and very content with the work we’re doing,” Crow-Armstrong said. “The behind-the-scenes stuff, everything is starting to make a little more sense to me. The way the game works, the way you need to put together a good body of work to make things consistent for you on a daily basis, I’m starting to finally get a grip on that.”

(Top photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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