Cubs

Cubs finding pieces to build around Starlin Castro

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Cubs finding pieces to build around Starlin Castro

Two years ago, the Cubs promoted Starlin Castro and framed it as a way to get better defensively, with more range and a stronger arm. Anything on offense was supposed to be a bonus.

The 20-year-old shortstop smashed those expectations on May 7, 2010, launching a three-run bomb in his first at-bat and finishing with six RBI, the most ever for a player making his major-league debut.

Castro hasnt stopped hitting since that night in Cincinnati. In those two calendar years, only Michael Young (402), Ichiro Suzuki (397) and Adrian Gonzalez (391) have more hits than Castro (385).

Come and get it was the message Ryan Theriot delivered to reporters in spring training that year. The Cubs now have their All-Star shortstop to build around for the next decade.

Some of those pieces that could make the Cubs (12-17) relevant again showed up in Mondays 5-1 win over the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field.

Bryan LaHair and Ian Stewart hit back-to-back shots into the right-field bleachers off Tommy Hanson in the fourth inning. LaHair now has eight homers and 16 RBI in his last 19 games with an at-bat.

Castro and LaHair are giving the Cubs a 3-4 punch in the middle of the lineup. Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija who limited the Braves (18-12) to one run in seven innings have the stuff to potentially form the top of a playoff rotation.

A new administration saw the raw potential in Samardzija to become a frontline starter. Team president Theo Epstein said the art is in the consistency from one start to the next. Samardzija is now 4-1 with a 3.03 ERA.

Im doing a good job of slowing down, Samardzija said, and really thinking through at-bats and remembering what they did previously. Thats all part of pitching. They get to know you a little more, but you also get to know them a little more, too. You find what works and kind of stick with it. You got to mix it up.

Where Samardzija probably needed fresh voices and new sets of eyes to evaluate him, Castro just keeps hitting, not bothered by the changes in the organization, the media scrutiny, or the price of fame.

Castros hitting .350 and has reached base safely in 66 of his last 69 games. He went 2-for-4 on Monday night and smacked a two-out RBI single up the middle in the seventh inning, giving the Cubs an insurance run.

Castro has already played for three different managers Lou Piniella, Mike Quade and Dale Sveum, an old shortstop who started giving pointers during the first workout in spring training.

Sveum became the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach and watched their homegrown core develop into a playoff contender. Ready or not, Sveum felt it was best for the future of the franchise to commit to Castro as their No. 3 hitter this year.

Its just a learning curve now (with) situational hitting, Sveum said. (Its) men in scoring position and knowing what the pitchers going to give you. Prepare for that and understand what the pitchers going to do in certain situations.

Thats his biggest learning curve. Hes always going to hit hes just got the mechanics and the hand-eye coordination. Now the important part is (getting) the big hits later in the game when youre facing (better) velocity and stuff.

Of course, three nights after that spectacular debut, Castro made his first appearance at Wrigley Field and got booed after making three errors.

Castro had 56 errors during his first two years in the big leagues, and hes already committed eight this season. Year 3 will be pivotal.

On Opening Day, Epstein was asked a broad question about overall team defense, and his general answer seemed to give some insight into how the organization views Castro as a long-term answer at shortstop.

Theres an emphasis on fundamentals, making the routine play and not just talking about it, Epstein said. (Thats) physically breaking down proper footwork, proper throwing mechanics, proper team fundamental play on bunt plays and the running game. We spent a lot of time working on it.

Defense is one of those areas where you can get better individually and as a team through hard work. Its hard to take someone whos a .230 hitter with no power and no patience and say: Go rake and get on base and hit for power. Thats hard to do.

But you can take someone whos got some defensive issues and work with them through repetition. There can be a lot of improvement. I hope the hard work pays off.

Heres an interesting question for Cubs fans: Where will Castro be two years from now? His smiling face up on billboards? A leader in a clubhouse that includes Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson? The answer will probably say something about where the Cubs are heading.

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

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USA TODAY

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”

It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.

There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.

There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.

· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.

“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.

“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”

· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.

“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”

· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.

But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.

“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”

· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.

Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.

“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.

“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”

· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.

By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Cornette (The U/ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel. Justin Turner hits a walk-off 3-run HR off of John Lackey to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the NLCS. So why was Lackey even in the game? How much blame should Joe Maddon get for the loss?

The Bears run the ball over and over and over again to beat the Ravens in overtime, but should they have let Mitch Trubisky throw the ball more?