“MVP! MVP! MVP!” the crowd chanted Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs fans recognizing Anthony Rizzo’s acrobatic catch and thanking the All-Star first baseman for what has so far been a magical season for the best team in baseball.
Jason Hammel stepped off the rubber in the fifth inning and allowed Rizzo to soak in the standing ovation. Rizzo waved his glove after a Derek Jeter moment, the highlight-reel play that will be remembered from this 4-1 Game 2 win and a doubleheader sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Milwaukee rookie Keon Broxton fouled off a 3-1 pitch that drifted out toward the blue rolled-up tarp, where Rizzo had made a spectacular diving catch into the stands almost exactly a year ago against the Brewers, while Hammel stood on the mound watching and a young team began to find its identity.
Rizzo tracked the ball, planted his right leg onto the ledge and lifted himself up, sticking out his right arm into two rows of seats while balancing his left leg in the air. Rizzo snapped his glove, raised his arms and hopped back onto the dirt with a huge smile on his face, signaling two outs with his left hand.
“I was surprised myself when I caught that, to be honest,” Rizzo said. “It’s one of those fun plays where if you make it, you look great. If you don’t make it, you kind of look like a fool.”
The balance-beam catch became an amazing routine for a player listed at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, at a time when Rizzo has been watching the “Final Five” U.S. women’s gymnastics team during the Rio Olympics.
“Maybe ‘Final Six?’” Rizzo said. “I got a good dismount and could have stuck the landing a little better, but I was pleased with it.”
“I was hoping for at least a 9.5 from the Luxembourg judge,” manager Joe Maddon said.
“It takes a special athlete to be able to do that. He may not look like a great athlete, but he is a great athlete,” Hammel said, laughing in the middle of his postgame press conference. “I love you, Rizz.”
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Rizzo always brings pieces of flair to the Cubs, as a clubhouse DJ, Party Room designer and theme-trip enthusiast. That attitude – relaxed while focused, supremely confident, hypercompetitive without letting it become all-consuming paralysis – pushes the Cubs toward October.
“He wants to be the leader,” Hammel said. “He wants that pressure. I think he really relishes and cherishes that (role). That’s just the type of guy he is, the personality he carries. A lot of guys joke around with him – and give him a hard time – because he really does try to be a leader.
“He exudes his own confidence in a funny way, different than other people. (But) it’s fun to have a guy like that, a young guy that really wants to take the team where he wants to go.”
Combine that relentlessness with Gold Glove-caliber defense and heart-of-the-order production (25 homers, 85 RBI, .966 OPS) and you have a leading National League MVP candidate.
“I never really seen that before in a stadium where the crowd basically wants you to take a bow out in the field,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “He does it all. He really works hard over at first to try and get to every ball he can.
“What he does offensively and brings to the table every day – you really can’t ask a guy to do any more to carry a club.”
Even if Rizzo might not have been the most valuable Cub on a night where Hammel (13-5, 2.75 ERA) didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning, striking out six of the first 12 batters he faced, chipping in with two hits of his own – while limiting the Brewers to just two – and extending his scoreless streak to 22 consecutive innings.
Or in the middle of a lineup where Kris Bryant knocked out Brewers starter Chase Anderson (left quadriceps contusion) after 11 pitches with a first-inning line drive back to the mound – and keeps making his own MVP case as an All-Star third baseman with 28 homers and 73 RBI and the ability to play all over the outfield.
But in so many ways, this franchise revolves around Rizzo, who only turned 27 last week and could have fallen into the trap of putting up good numbers on a decent team and enjoying life in The Show. The Cubs (75-43) won their 75th game last year on Sept. 1 and surged ahead toward 97 victories and through two playoff rounds. That won’t be enough in 2016. Rizzo wants to be great on the team that lives forever in Chicago.
MVP? MVP? MVP?
“We have six-plus more weeks left,” Rizzo said. “We got to finish strong. It’s really cool to hear the fans say that, but there’s a long way to go.”