More than three-and-a-half hours before first pitch, Starlin Castro held a bat in his right hand, swinging with one arm at the balls Cubs hitting coach John Mallee threw underhand.
Manager Joe Maddon watched Castro from behind the batting cage at Wrigley Field, and the three-time All-Star shortstop certainly appears to be under the microscope leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, with rumors already flying around Twitter about what the Cubs might do next.
But the early work paid off in Monday night’s 9-8 comeback victory over the Colorado Rockies, Castro delivering a key hit during a fourth-inning rally that helped the Cubs erase a four-run deficit and move on from getting swept by the Philadelphia Phillies over the weekend.
After that walk-off win, the news broke about a blockbuster trade involving franchise shortstops, Troy Tulowitzki leaving the Rockies and heading to the Toronto Blue Jays for a package headlined by Jose Reyes.
Castro has been such a disappointment this season that it’s hard to picture him in a new uniform by Friday. But if he gets locked in, he still probably has more offensive upside than any bat the Cubs (52-46) could realistically add for the stretch run.
“He’s engaged, man,” Maddon said. “He’s struggling. (But) I’ll always defend players that care and work hard. I always will. And I think he cares and he’s working hard.”
The point of that drill is to swing with one arm and take a direct path to the ball, not rolling it over. Castro knocked a Jorge De La Rosa pitch into left field, through the hole between third base and shortstop, driving in the game-tying and go-ahead runs.
“I’m looking at the videos from when he was going really good,” Maddon said. “A lot of times when a major-league guy is out of whack, it’s nothing obvious or glaring. It’s normally something subtle. And with him, it is subtle. That’s why it’s so difficult to get it back sometimes.”
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Maddon has been watching videos from last year, when Castro hit .292 and put up 14 homers and 65 RBI before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in September. Maddon has seen the juxtaposition, noticing a more open stance as Castro maybe falls into some bad habits.
Castro’s .575 OPS is 202 points lower than where it ended last season, when the Cubs could hope for an even bigger offensive breakthrough on a relevant team during his age-25 season.
“There are some differences, but they’re so small,” Maddon said. “You have to sacrifice comfort for function. But sometimes you sacrifice function for comfort. They become more comfortable and it’s not necessarily functional.
“You got to really watch that closely. It happens. Not just only to him, but to a lot of guys. You just get away from what you normally did, normal patterns. And all of a sudden, it starts feeling normal, but it’s not good. And then it’s hard to get back to where you had been.”