Tommy La Stella

Respect this: How Anthony Rizzo owns October

Respect this: How Anthony Rizzo owns October

No one around this team flips the switch quite like Anthony Rizzo, who usually rolls into the Wrigley Field clubhouse looking like he just woke up from a nap, and spends an extraordinary amount of time with cancer patients at Lurie Children’s Hospital, and absolutely wants to own October and be the new Mr. Cub.

It depends on the mood. Rizzo can be purposely boring with the media or extremely entertaining, writing everything off as “just baseball” or predicting the Cubs would win the division after an 89-loss season in 2014 and the franchise’s fifth-straight fifth-place finish.    

Remember Rizzo in the middle of an epic World Series Game 7 against the Cleveland Indians, clinging to a mic-d up David Ross in Progressive Field’s visiting dugout: “I can’t control myself right now. I’m trying my best. I’m emotional. I’m an emotional wreck.” Rizzo leaned into Grandpa Rossy and cracked up teammate Tommy La Stella with an “Anchorman” quote: “I am in a glass case of emotion right now.”

Rizzo screaming “Respect me! Respect me!” and pounding his chest will be one of the takeaway moments from this National League Division Series, making Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker pay for the key Game 3 decision to let lefty reliever Oliver Perez pitch to him.

“He has been underrated,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s forecast pushed Game 4 back to Wednesday at 3:08 p.m. “For me, he always should be in the MVP consideration. That’s just Anthony being Anthony in the moment. I would almost bet – had he had a chance to reevaluate what he said right there – he may have. But that’s just Rizz. He’s very self-confident.

“And there’s not a thing wrong with that. In this game, there’s so much failure involved, you have to have that self-confidence to overcome the negative moments. That was truly Rizz being Rizz.”

Rizzo lifted the first pitch from Perez into the no man’s land between shortstop Trea Turner and converging outfielders Jayson Werth and Michael A. Taylor, the ball dropping for a two-out, go-ahead RBI single in the eighth inning of Monday’s 2-1 win. That left the Nationals one loss away from winter and the Cubs one win away from their third straight trip to the NL Championship Series.

[MORE: Game 4 postponed to Wednesday: Could postseason rain go against the Cubs this time around?]

That type of Sustained Success sounded unthinkable in the middle of the 2012 season, when Rizzo took over for first baseman Bryan LaHair on a team that would lose 101 games. Rizzo began to prove why Theo Epstein’s baseball operations group had such a man crush on him, putting his own imprint on the franchise with his relaxed attitude and hair-trigger intensity.  

“You’ve just got to stay in the moment,” Rizzo said. “These games, it doesn't matter what you did the last at-bat, if you got a hit, if you got a home run. It's all about that pitch, and that next pitch, and you've got to be ready.

“What you did previously means nothing anymore. You've got to be ready every single pitch. And to stay in games like this, we know. We know we're good.”

A bloop single still goes down in the record books. Rizzo now has a nine-game hitting streak in postseason play, going 13-for-33 (.394) with two home runs and 10 RBI during that stretch. That streak is tied with Riggs Stephenson (1929-32) for third-longest as a Cub, trailing Frank “Wildfire” Schulte (13 games between 1906-10) and Ryne Sandberg (10 games from 1984-89). Rizzo’s six career homers and 17 RBI in the playoffs are both franchise records.  

It’s not that Rizzo’s underrated as much as other young players became the next thing in Wrigleyville, Kris Bryant beat him in last year’s NL MVP race, the Cubs are overflowing with other characters/distractions/storylines and you almost take the Gold Glove defense and the 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons (three in a row) for granted now.

But Rizzo is 28 years old and under club control through 2021 and said it after Jon Lester signed that $155 million megadeal: The Cubs should be contenders for the rest of his career.

“We know someone is going to come through, and it's just a matter of time before someone does,” Rizzo said. “It's just who we are. We all believe in each other."

Max Scherzer's dominance has forced Joe Maddon to do something he hates with NLDS Game 3 lineup

Max Scherzer's dominance has forced Joe Maddon to do something he hates with NLDS Game 3 lineup

The Cubs released Joe Maddon's lineup for Game 3 of the NLDS against Max Scherzer and the Nationals, and like the skipper foreshadowed, there's a bit of a surprise.

Javy Baez is not in the lineup against the Nationals ace, with Ben Zobrist manning second base and Jon Jay playing center field as the "extra lefty" Maddon mentioned Sunday.

Here's the entire lineup behind Jose Quintana for his postseason debut:

1. Jon Jay - CF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Ben Zobrist - 2B
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Jason Heyward - RF
8. Addison Russell - SS
9. Jose Quintana - P

The impetus behind Maddon's lineup changes is Scherzer, as the likely NL Cy Young winner is absolutely dominant against right-handed hitters, holding them to a .136 average and .425 OPS while 46.9 percent of the at-bats have ended in strikeouts.

That's a tough matchup for any right-handed hitter, but especially Baez, who swings at so many pitches outside the zone even when he's locked in. Baez is 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in his career against Scherzer.

Lefties, meanwhile, are hitting .215 with a .692 OPS against Scherzer and have accounted for 16 of the 22 homers he's given up this season.

Maddon explained his thought process:

"Scherzer. That's just Scherzer, just purely the fact that he's so oppressive against right-handed hitters. More than anything, that's it. 

"I don't like to play the game without Javy on the field. I said that from the first time I saw him in spring training in 2015. I said, 'Man, we're a better team when he's on the field,' and I do; I love having him out there.

"For right now, if we can build some offense and grab a lead and switch to the defense in the latter part of the game, that's what we're going to try to do today."

That's something Maddon has done quite a bit in his time in Chicago, from inserting Chris Coghlan in the three-hole in 2015 to removing Schwarber for defensive replacements on a regular basis throughout the last three years.

Maddon could've opted to go with Tommy La Stella in Monday's lineup, as the left-handed-hitter infielder is 3-for-6 lifetime against Scherzer with a double, triple and homer. That would've kept Heyward in center and Zobrist in right field, like the Cubs lined up in Game 1 against right-hander Stephen Strasburg.

Instead, Maddon went with Jay — who is 1-for-8 lifetime against Scherzer — in a move that stabilizes the starting defense a bit more than if La Stella was in the lineup. La Stella will instead be Maddon's top pinch-hitting option off the bench, able to be inserted into a premium spot in the game.

The Cubs faced Scherzer just once in 2017, when he gave up one run in six innings in a 6-1 Nationals victory on June 27 in Washington. In his career, Scherzer is 3-1 with a 2.92 ERA in six starts against the Cubs.

The question will be how long Scherzer can last in Monday's game, just 8 days after suffering a hamstring "tweak" in his last start of the regular season. Scherzer said it was just muscle weakness in the hamstring and expects to be able to throw 100 pitches if need be.

Quintana has never faced the Nationals and only three players on their roster have ever seen him — catcher Matt Wieters is 2-for-3 while veterans Howie Kendrick and Adam Lind have combined to face Quintana 21 times, collecting seven hits in those appearances.

Here's how the Nationals will line up behind Scherzer, the same order they've had in the first two games:

1. Trea Turner - SS
2. Bryce Harper - RF
3. Anthony Rendon - 3B
4. Daniel Murphy - 2B
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Jayson Werth - LF
7. Matt Wieters - C
8. Michael A. Taylor - CF
9. Max Scherzer

Illinois native Tanner Roark is slated to throw Game 4 for the Nationals, but he may be the long man for Washington if Scherzer is unable to go deep into the contest. 

Are Cubs turning Ben Zobrist into a part-time player?

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USA TODAY

Are Cubs turning Ben Zobrist into a part-time player?

Joe Maddon believed in Ben Zobrist when he broke in with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and found all these different ways to use a multifaceted player. Zobrist bought into the super-utility concept – though he didn’t really have a choice – and helped create Maddon’s aura as a cool manager.

The Cubs used that relationship – and the chance to make history in his home state – to win a bidding war for a coveted free agent without offering the most guaranteed money. As last year’s World Series MVP, Zobrist helped absolve Maddon for his questionable Game 7 decisions.

But Maddon’s camera-friendly personality and deep-rooted connections to Zobrist has limits. Maddon didn’t worry about personal feelings during that playoff run, when he benched $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward, froze out relievers and started Javier Baez over Zobrist at second base for all 17 games.

You can already see the possibility of Zobrist becoming a part-time player down the stretch when hot-hitting Tommy La Stella starts at second base – like “3 a.m.” did during Monday’s 6-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field – and shortstop Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) begins his rehab assignment the same night with Triple-A Iowa.            

Play out the decisions from here, the way Maddon does with Jeremy Greenhouse, the assistant director of research and development, and Theo Epstein’s front office. The 2016 Cubs won two playoff rounds without Kyle Schwarber. Ian Happ hadn’t made his big-league debut yet. Jon Jay emerged as a leadoff solution. Heyward has bounced back from the worst offensive season of his career and still provides Gold Glove defense in right field.  

“There are a lot of options,” Maddon said. “Honestly, that’s one thing I was just mulling over. I was just talking to Greenhouse about that. I like a bunch of different scenarios presented to me, beyond what I can just conjure up in my own mind.

“What does it look like from the outside looking in? Give me some more thoughts, so that I can make my best decisions going into this whole thing.

“When Addison comes back, that compounds things, obviously, because now all of a sudden – with Javy playing at the level that he is and what it does to your defense with those two guys in the middle – that can be very pertinent going down to the latter part of the season.”

Maddon came into this season focusing on rest and recovery, particularly with Zobrist, who won a World Series ring with the 2015 Kansas City Royals and then played into early November last year, cementing his reputation as a clutch switch-hitter who can change the dynamics of an entire playoff lineup.

[MORE: Cubs watch Jon Lester take another step toward the pennant race] 

On his 36th birthday, Zobrist hurt his left wrist on an awkward swing at Dodger Stadium, part of a series of injuries (neck, back) that broke his kinetic chain, sapped his hand speed and limited his ability to work in the batting cage. Zobrist went six weeks between his last two home runs – the first game after the All-Star break and over the weekend in Philadelphia – and has struggled to push his OPS above .700.     

“It might relegate different guys – not just (Zobrist) – to becoming more on-off, on-off,” Maddon said. “Maybe on-on, then off, something to that effect. I don’t know yet. But I’m looking forward to Addison being well.

“And then we’re talking about Javy’s at-bats. If he continues that trend right now – where he’s not expanding his strike zone, which we’ve all been waiting for – if that happens, heads up. Heads up, he could be a real force the last month.”    

The first-place Cubs can also afford to be patient with Zobrist, knowing that he is such a good teammate and hoping for another huge payoff in October.

“I’m just thankful that we’re in the place we are right now as a team, and that we have other capable guys,” Zobrist said. “Because if we didn’t, it would be a much worse place for me to have struggled for as long as I have (this) season.”