Starlin Castro waited so long to see Wrigley Field rocking like this, growing up inside the fishbowl and hoping to be on a Cubs team that finally played meaningful games.
So Castro admired this one on Monday night, watching Michael Wacha’s curveball disappear into the bleacher seats in left-center field, hearing the roar of 42,411 fans and helping shove the St. Louis Cardinals toward the brink of elimination with that fourth-inning home run.
Castro stood at his locker after the Cubs grabbed control of this best-of-five National League division series with an 8-6 win in Game 3. A reporter asked if he felt like a “forgotten man,” no longer the franchise shortstop and surrounded by all these hotshot rookies.
“Nah, nah, I don’t think so,” Castro said. “I don’t think they forgot about me. I’ve been here for a lot of times – bad times – and now we found a way. How to be a good team.”
The Cubs are a better team with Addison Russell playing shortstop and Castro showing some swagger again. These last two months have compressed the ups and downs throughout Castro’s career into an all-out sprint into the playoffs: A three-time All-Star loses his job, gets benched, becomes a part-time second baseman, gets hot and puts up a 1.202 OPS in September.
“Keep the head up,” Castro said. “Try to do things for the team.”
The Cubs didn’t get much interest when they shopped Castro before the July 31 trade deadline. His sixth season in the big leagues – and association with five fifth-place teams – negated his age-25 potential. He had been among the least-productive hitters in the majors – hitting .237 with a .574 OPS – and is still guaranteed four years and $38 million after this season.
Joe Maddon – Castro’s fifth manager since getting promoted from Double-A Tennessee in May 2010 – pushed for Russell at shortstop but also didn’t want to bury a guy closing in on 1,000 hits.
“I give Joe a ton of credit,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “All along, even when (Starlin) was struggling, (Joe was saying): ‘This guy’s been awesome. His work is great. He’s great in the clubhouse. He’s great in the dugout.’ Behind closed doors, he didn’t have to always say that.
“And the work was good. That was always (Joe’s) big thing. Even when he was struggling, (Starlin) was always taking extra hitting, he was always working on stuff. A lot of guys would have cashed in the season.”
Castro cleared his head and made a few mechanical adjustments, moving closer to home plate, closing and squaring up his stance and directing all that momentum back toward the pitcher instead of reaching out to hit groundball after groundball.
Maddon played the matchups and tried to be honest with Castro, who hit .353 with 12 doubles, six homers and 23 RBI in his final 47 games after the switch from shortstop.
“The confidence is back,” hitting coach John Mallee. “Remember, he’s one of the best hitters in the game over the last five years. (But) as a human being, he felt so bad because he thought he might be letting the team down. And he tried so hard.
“He wasn’t afraid to make the adjustments he needed to make. Sometimes it’s hard for guys when they’ve had success."
After being on the wrong side of the rivalry for so long, Castro would love to see the Cubs eliminate the Cardinals on Tuesday at Wrigley Field and pop more champagne bottles.
“From the time I started my career here, every time we play St. Louis, they beat us,” Castro said. “(This is a) really good moment. We have a good team like they (do).”