Anthony Rizzo's leadoff message to Cubs: 'We've hit since we came out of the womb'

Anthony Rizzo's leadoff message to Cubs: 'We've hit since we came out of the womb'

NEW YORK — Joe Maddon didn’t experience divine inspiration during his visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Tuesday as much as Ben Zobrist’s nagging left wrist injury made the World Series MVP unavailable that night against the New York Mets.

To be honest, the Cubs are running out of ideas to jumpstart their lineup and Maddon isn’t the type of manager who pretends the outside world doesn’t exist and loses sleep at the team’s Midtown Manhattan hotel.

How about Anthony Rizzo hitting leadoff?

Rizzo lobbied Maddon for it, talked trash with Dexter Fowler and texted the old you-go, we-go leadoff guy. You will definitely see that look again on Wednesday night against Matt Harvey after Rizzo ignited the offense in a 14-3 win at Citi Field, the kind of low-stress, playing-from-ahead game the Cubs have rarely put together this year.

“It’s the mental grind of the season,” Rizzo said. “I just keep telling everyone: ‘We’re good.’ We’re good baseball players. We’ve hit our entire lives. We’ve hit since we came out of the womb, basically. In Little League, high school, travel ball, in college, in the minors. We’ve all hit up here, too.

“It’s just a matter of getting that confidence back and trying not to get two knocks in one at-bat. Just pass it onto the next guy. That’s what we keep telling each other. It’ll turn. And if it doesn’t, we’ll keep working until it does.”

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Standing at his locker before the game and listening to state-of-the-team questions, Rizzo promised: “I’m going to be ready to go first pitch.” Rizzo waited until Zack Wheeler’s second pitch before launching a 95-mph fastball over the center-field wall and beyond the Big Apple for a home run in his first career at-bat in the leadoff spot.

Rizzo then came back from an 0-2 count with the bases loaded in the second inning, working a seven-pitch, two-out walk that gave the Cubs a 2-1 lead. Ian Happ destroyed Wheeler’s next pitch, blasting a 94-mph fastball out to left field for his first career grand slam (in a game where he also struck out four times). Three batters later, Addison Russell ended Wheeler’s night with a two-run double down the left-field line.

Rizzo also chipped in with an RBI double in the third inning, and this is a lineup that can go cold or get hot depending on its All-Star/Gold Glove/Silver Slugger first baseman.

“My reaction was: Why not?” Jon Lester said after pitching with some margin for error and notching his 150th career win. “Anything to get us going, and he did.”

For one night, the defending World Series champs could exhale and deflect attention away from a 32-32 start where the Cubs have broken down in every phase of the game.

“Do we need a shakeup?” Rizzo said. “We need to start winning. We need to start winning baseball games and getting a really good feeling in here again.

“Winning cures a lot, so whatever it takes. If I need to hit ninth, if I need to pitch, if I need to play shortstop, it doesn’t matter. I think anyone will say the same thing — whatever it takes.”

Yeah, whatever it takes, right, Joe?

“I’ll be at St. Paddy’s again tomorrow, too,” Maddon joked. “I really avoid praying for success as a group hitting or pitching. I don’t focus on those things. That’s not what candles are for.”

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Four days into the Cubs’ training camp restart, we’ve only begun to get acquainted with the new normal of baseball rhythms and routines that we can only hope will result in a 2020 season of 60 games.

If the league can fix some of its early testing issues and keep enough players on enough teams healthy enough to start the season, what might come into play for the Cubs and the actual baseball.

Early observations after about a dozen Zoom sessions with team personnel and two intrasquad scrimmages:

NUTS: Home cooked?

The Cubs, who draw so reliably in one of the unique ballparks in the majors, might have more to lose than most teams without fans allowed to attend games when the season starts July 24.

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Just how much of the Confines’ home-field advantage is lost will be a matter of “wait-and-see,” manager David Ross said.

“There’s always an advantage to playing in your own park,” he said Sunday. “You feel more comfortable you woke up in your own bed. You’re not staying in a hotel room, which especially now, where you feel like outside spaces just aren’t comfortable as they used to be, probably [gives] a slight advantage in your city.

“There’s no substitute for fans,” he added. “There’s probably a slight advantage, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it used to be.”

What Ross didn’t mention were the rooftops across Waveland and Sheffield, which are planning to operate at 25-percent capacity when games start, suggesting at least a few hundred fans within cheering and booing distance.

“You’re going to hear them loud and clear, too,” pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “I promise you that.”

BOLTS: Taking the fifth

All you need to know about Alec Mills’ ability to adjust and immediately step into an important role is what he did in an emergency start against the first-place Cardinals at Wrigley last year with the Cubs a half-game out and barely a week left in the season.

He hadn’t started anywhere in a month — and that was in the minors. But the guy who pitched out of the bullpen just three times in the four intervening weeks, pitched two outs deep into the fifth inning that day and didn’t allow a run (the bullpen took care of that, in a loss).

No wonder when Ross talks about Mills replacing the injured Jose Quintana (thumb) in the rotation, he says, “I’ve got a ton of confidence.”

He’s not the only one. “I’ve always had the mindset of doing whatever I can to stay ready and help in any way,” said Mills after pitching a strong three innings in a simulated game Sunday. “Obviously, with an unfortunate injury like this, I think it’s just even more heightened.

“I’m ready to do whatever, whether it needs to be maybe a start here or there, a couple more starts, long guy out of the pen — just whatever I need to do I pride myself on being ready to do that.”

CHATTER: The mask at hand

“It’s a little different. You leave the house with a phone, your keys, your wallet and your mask.”

—Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo on his and his teammates’ new daily normal.

“Everybody is thinking about it, but we try to get here and understand this is our safe zone and we’re trying to create that [within] the things that we’re going to do on and off the field.”

—Ross on players weighing the risk of playing during the pandemic against the safety precautions and protocols the team has built in and around its Wrigley Field bubble.


2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

Imagine it’s late September. The Cubs have already hosted the White Sox for three unforgettable games at Wrigley Field — fans packed the rooftops (at 25 percent capacity) around the ballpark. Now, it’s time to head to the South Side for the final series of the season, rife with playoff implications.

If the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t derail the 2020 MLB season, that scene very well could become a reality.

The Cubs regular season schedule, which MLB released Monday, features six Crosstown Classic games. The first of two series between the Chicago teams runs Aug. 21-23 at Wrigley Field. The second is penciled in for Sept. 25-27 at Guaranteed Rate Field. Both three-game series include Friday and Saturday evening games, and end with a Sunday afternoon game.

The Crosstown rivalry consumes 1/10 of the Cubs schedule this shortened season.

“It’s exciting, right?” Cubs manager David Ross said.

And quite convenient. That’s the point of a regionally-based schedule, which has the Cubs facing only NL Central and AL Central teams. While trying to limit the spread of COVID-19, that convenience becomes especially important.

“We get to sleep in our own beds at night,” Ross said of the Crosstown Classic. “We can set up things where if we need to we can work out here and drive over like you would in an Arizona spring training. There’s a lot of options that we have for us that we can do with an in-town team. I feel like that’s definitely a luxury.”

Some of those same advantages apply to the Cubs’ games at Milwaukee as well. As is the case with all their division rivals, the Cubs are scheduled to play the Brewers 10 times, including opening day at Wrigley Field on July 24.

As for their mid-September series at Milwaukee: “Players have the ability to drive up day of the game, drive back afterwards or get a car back,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of freedom and comfort in sleeping in your own bed, especially in the scenarios we’re in this year.”

The Cubs’ setup with the White Sox is mirrored over in Missouri between the Cardinals and Royals; they will also play each other six times. The Cubs will play three or four games against each of the four other teams in the AL Central. The White Sox are expected to be a stauncher opponent than the Royals, automatically giving the Cubs a tougher route through their interleague schedule.

But that’s a small price to pay for six rivalry games in Chicago.