As a boy in Havana, Cuba, Springfield Cardinals’ first baseman Malcom Nuñez launched home runs from his backyard and the balls – or more often, objects that substituted for them – landed hard on nearby homes.
Neighbors who complained quickly learned that Nuñez’ grandmother would hear none of it.
“She made me fall in love with the game,” Nuñez said in Spanish during an interview before Thursday’s game, with translation provided by teammate Aaron Antonini.
Frisco Roughriders’ pitchers surely wish she hadn’t.
Nuñez walloped a two-run shot in the seventh inning, part of six-run frame that lifted the Cardinals to a 9-4 win over Frisco on Thursday – his third home run of the series and 16th of the season.
Springfield (45-48) is 14-10 in the second half, tied for first place in the Texas League North Division.
In the ninth inning on Wednesday night, Nuñez smacked a hanging breaking ball and it sailed 425-feet over the outfield berm at Hammons Field.
“I always look first for the fastball, that’s the pitch I hit the best,” he said. “I react to everything else, so I recognized it was a breaking ball and put a good swing on it.”
Nuñez shrugged off a slow start to the 2022 season with a monster month of June. He slashed .381/.454/.726 and mashed nine homers in 23 games, with 27 runs batted in – for that, he was named St. Louis Cardinals’ Minor League Player of the Month.
“He’s just been giving us quality at-bat after quality at-bat,” Springfield manager Jose Leger said. “It doesn’t surprise me that he is where he is right now.”
“His control of the strike zone, that’s one thing he’s done this year. Being able to lay-off pitches, being able to read breaking balls out of the pitcher’s hand – that’s what big leaguers do, they control the strike zone well.”
Success on the diamond in the United States was beyond his childhood dreams, even for a kid that always had a stick or bat in his hands.
Nuñez rarely caught a glimpse of Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols in action – he had no access to the internet and Cuban television did not show any Major League Baseball games.
His hero was Alfredo Despaigne, one of the most decorated sluggers to play for Cuba’s national team. Despaigne blazed a trail for Nuñez, and for generations of Cuban baseball talent to come.
Despaigne starred on Cuba’s 2008 Olympic team that won the silver medal and in 2013 he was the first Cuban permitted to play outside of the country without defecting. The following year, he signed with a professional team in Japan.
Little did Nuñez know his baseball destiny would unfold there, too.
Malcom traveled to Fukushima with Cuba’s 15-under team, and he put on a show in the 2016 WBSC Baseball World Cup that raised the eyebrows of MLB scouts.
Nuñez collected 19 hits and nine walks; he finished the tournament with a .683 on-base percentage, tops among hitters with at least 30 at-bats. Cuba defeated the host country 9-4 in the championship game.
“It was a beautiful experience, playing (in Japan),” Nuñez said. “I always like to compete, and I was competing for my country. I really loved it; I love playing to win every game.”
Nuñez went 3-for-4 with two walks and a run scored in Cuba’s 11-2 rout of Team USA. The losing pitcher in that game, Trey Faltine, completed his sophomore season at the University of Texas this spring.
That’s a reminder of how young the 21-year-old prospect still is – many of his peers remain in the amateur ranks. The Cardinals signed 17-year-old Nuñez in 2018 and promoted him to Double-A in 2021 after stops in the Dominican Summer League, Johnson City (Rookie) and Peoria (Class-A).
A natural third baseman, Nuñez moved primarily to first base as Nolan Arenado and teammate Jordan Walker loom large on the Cardinals’ depth chart at the hot corner.
“Defensively, he’s been outstanding at first base,” Leger said. “We know third base can be a little more challenging, but he’s also played some good third base when we’ve put him out there.”
“I think his biggest challenge will be trying to stay in shape. He’s a big kid, muscular – big legs. It’s important for him to be able to stay in shape and keep himself healthy.”
Nuñez’ off-season plans are undetermined, but he makes his home in Miami where his mother resides and he’s looking forward to something sorely lacking in Springfield – authentic Cuban fare.
“Especially the rice, beans and pork,” he said.
Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505