Cubs

Cubs: Anthony Rizzo smashes out of slump with the help of Matt Szczur's special bat

Cubs: Anthony Rizzo smashes out of slump with the help of Matt Szczur's special bat

LOS ANGELES - In a moment straight out of "The Natural," Anthony Rizzo needed a bat and picked out a good one.

Matt Szczur played the role of bat boy in this story, but the ending was the same: a big-time home run.

Rizzo had been scuffling in a major way throughout the postseason, going just 2-for-26 in seven games leading up to Wednesday's Game 4 at Dodger Stadium.

One of those hits was a broken bat single in the ninth inning of Game 3 Tuesday night.

Rizzo used a new bat for his first two plate appearances in Game 4 and wound up striking out in both.

So he turned to Szczur's bat for some luck in the fifth inning.

"I knew he had it when he got in the box and I looked at Tommy La Stella and said, "Watch, he's gonna get a knock right now.' And then he hit the homer," Szczur said.

Szczur played in 107 games with the Cubs in the regular season, but didn't make the postseason roster for either the NLDS or NLCS. The Cubs have still had him travel to all the games and his impact showed up in a big way Wednesday night.

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Rizzo followed that homer with a pair of singles and suddenly bumped his postseason batting average up to .161 after that .077 start.

Rizzo has used Szczur's bat at various times throughout the season and that particular piece of lumber has been in game circulation for three years, something Szczur was hesitant to talk about and potentially jinx.

Rizzo - who beat cancer as a teenagerin the Boston Red Sox system - saw a feature Wednesday on Szczur donating bone marrow to a young girl in the Ukraine right after college.

"I've done it a few times, especially later on in the year," Rizzo said. "The first two at-bats weren't so hot. Szcz came out today with a nice feature on him about him giving his bone marrow, so all the things were just adding up. 

"I hit well with his bat, so he has hits in it. Same size, just different model and different name, and it worked."

The Cubs offense badly needed Rizzo to get hot in the middle of a lineup that set a new franchise record with 21 straight scoreless innings before the fourth inning Wednesday night.

Szczur is a good-natured guy who didn't seem to take the decision to leave him off the playoff roster personally. He's been at every workout, sim game and pregame batting practice with a smile on his face.

"He contributes way more [than a bat]," Kris Bryant said. "Anthony likes to use his bat here and there. I even used it at one point this year and I got a hit out of it. Any time you can take hits from other guys and they're gonna give 'em to you, you take 'em.

"Some guys that aren't on the roster, they're all here and supporting us and that's huge for us. They've been here all year."

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair