SAN FRANCISCO – Anthony Rizzo isn’t so much the leader of the Cubs as he’s a good dude who came along with the right attitude for this team at the right time. A franchise burdened by history needed guys to play loose, without constantly feeling that weight of 1908 on their shoulders. A young team responded to someone who had been there during the lost years, reminding them to have fun and stay relaxed.
Most of all – in a bottom-line business – this is a Silver Slugger/Gold Glove first baseman in position for his third straight 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Rizzo attacked his weaknesses, overhauling his swing, making adjustments against left-handed pitchers and choking up with two strikes. The kind of growth the Cubs are still waiting to see from some of their other 20-something hitters.
Rizzo has shown the ability to carry a team, that when he gets hot, it seems like the rest of the lineup can feel it. Willson Contreras had become that guy – until he felt something in his right hamstring during Wednesday’s painful loss to the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Whatever comes out of Thursday’s MRI in the Phoenix area, you know Rizzo will be the same guy on Friday when he goes back to work.
“This isn’t my first rodeo,” Rizzo said. “I’ve had guys go down around me. Guys get traded. It’s part of the game. I’m not going to change who I am, my approach. I’m going to stay within myself. That’s the only thing you can do. You start pressing, you’re going to find yourself in a bad spot.”
Contreras emerging as a legitimate cleanup hitter – combined with the Jose Quintana trade, a roster getting closer to full strength and the refreshed feeling from a mini-vacation – explains the Cubs winning 13 of their first 16 games after the All-Star break leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.
But the defending World Series champs have since lost three consecutive series to two likely playoff teams – the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals – and an organization that might wind up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
The National League Central opened on Thursday with four teams separated by less than four games, with the Cubs getting a day off in the desert before this weekend’s three-game series against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
“We’re losing games we got to win,” Rizzo said. “That’s it. There’s really nothing more to it. You just got to win baseball games.”
Doing that consistently becomes so much harder without Contreras, the young catcher who had put up 10 of his 21 homers and a 1.080 OPS since the All-Star break.
But there was nothing easy about how the Cubs avoided an elimination game against Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner last October, survived a 21-inning scoreless drought against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series and beat the Cleveland Indians in an epic World Series Game 7.
“What can you do?” Rizzo said. “It’s part of the game. Guys get hurt. You got to be ready for it. Obviously, you don’t want someone in the middle of your order – especially the year he’s having – to go down. It’s upsetting for him, and for us, too. But we got to keep playing baseball.”