Cubs

Cubs see Anthony Rizzo elevating his game to a whole new level

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Cubs see Anthony Rizzo elevating his game to a whole new level

PHOENIX – Almost everyone around the Cubs has been so conditioned to talk about the kids and the future that it becomes easy to overlook Anthony Rizzo and the special season he is having right now.

But you couldn’t miss it on Saturday night at Chase Field, the franchise first baseman delivering the go-ahead, three-run homer in the ninth inning of a 9-6 comeback win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

An All-Star last year, Rizzo has taken his game to new heights, lifting the Cubs up along with him. So when Arizona reliever Enrique Burgos left a slider up, it almost landed in the swimming pool on the right-field patio.

Rizzo finished with six RBI, nearly hitting a grand slam in the fifth inning, or at least dropping his bat as if it was gone. He settled for a three-run double when it bounced off the left-field fence.

[MORE CUBS: Jorge Soler isn’t living up to his own high expectations]

“At the end of the day, Rizzo took care of business,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He put us all on his back and carried us to victory. That’s what I expect from him.”

Yes, Rizzo covered up for a few mistakes, the most glaring being the ball second baseman Addison Russell dropped on a flip from shortstop Starlin Castro, leading to three unearned runs charged to Arrieta in the fifth inning.

Rizzo is by far the most reliable defender on the 25-and-under infield. He has as many home runs – nine – as stolen bases. He’s getting on base 44 percent of the time and putting up a 1.030 OPS.

“He’s in that really elite group of baseball players regarding how they work an at-bat,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And then on top of that, he’s a very good defender, too. He’s a really complete player. Now he’s turning into a good baserunner. He’s really elevated his game on all levels.” 

It’s probably not a total coincidence that this is happening at a time when the Cubs are 24-18 and planning to make some noise in the National League. Rizzo has played on fifth-place teams in each of the last four seasons.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“It’s just fun coming to the park every day,” Rizzo said. “This group of guys is awesome. We’re really young. We have a lot of fun, on and off the field. We’re like a band of brothers.”

The Kris Bryant Effect is real. Russell should be an everyday contributor for years to come. Castro is already a three-time All-Star. Maddon has called Jorge Soler “a monster player in the making.”

But the Cubs – who came back from deficits of 2-0, 5-4 and 6-4 – are trying to build their relentless American League-style lineup around Rizzo.

“He’s not giving away at-bats,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t give away pitches, let alone at-bats. He’s in the moment all the time offensively, making adjustments. You always hear hitting coaches say: Take what the pitcher gives you. He’s willing to do that. He doesn’t try to force things all the time. That’s why he’s been so successful.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”