Anthony Rizzo must be feeling pretty good about his winning-the-division prediction.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Rizzo said, sounding annoyed at the wise-guy question.
The Cubs had completed less than 12 percent of their schedule after Monday night’s 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. But a young team that’s used to being buried by this point will take 11-7, running one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.
“Huge,” Rizzo said. “We preached it in spring training: We got to survive April. We can’t put ourselves in a hole like we’ve done in years past. We’re doing a good job of coming to the park every day and playing with a lot of energy, having fun and really playing with a purpose.”
Surrounded by reporters, Rizzo stood in front of his locker, inside the cramped clubhouse that now has a shiny disco ball hanging from a ceiling fan. Loud rap music blasted from the sound system when the media entered the room.
Joe Maddon likes to say the heavy lifting had already been done by the time he left the Tampa Bay Rays and scored a five-year, $25 million contract. But after winning the offseason – and dealing with their fifth manager in six seasons and an overhyped group of prospects, not to mention the usual Wrigleyville distractions (see Porta-Pottie-Gate) – the Cubs absolutely needed a sense of momentum.
The Cubs generated 10 hits from the first six hitters in their American League-style lineup and wore down the Pirates (11-9) in front of 29,159 at Wrigley Field. Jason Hammel – last year’s sign-and-flip guy – put up eight scoreless innings and now has allowed one walk against 23 strikeouts through 25-plus innings.
Inside the interview room/dungeon, a reporter asked Hammel: Is it too early to project this is going to be a really good team this year?
“We’ve been doing that since January, right?” Hammel said, delivering another great one-liner. “We know what we have in this clubhouse. We’re excited. It starts with Joe. He’s given us one hell of a feel. He came in and made us know that we’re going to have a good time while we were winning.
“It wasn’t the drill-sergeant type. It wasn’t looking over our shoulder being the mother, the dad, whatever. It’s letting us go out and be ourselves and just play baseball.
“We’ve worked really hard at understanding that we don’t care what anybody else says. It’s what we have.”
The Cubs have Rizzo (2-for-3, one walk, two RBI) leading the majors with a .494 on-base percentage. Kris Bryant (2-for-4, two RBI) has been as good as advertised, putting up a .938 OPS through his first 10 games in The Show. Starlin Castro is hitting .324 and pushing himself to be in the Gold Glove conversation at shortstop.
[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
“We were wanting a good April, and we’re on our way to having one,” team president Theo Epstein said. “But I think it’s been earned. The guys have really fought hard every game, and I really like the identity that we’re creating for ourselves.”
The Cubs have already notched five victories in their final at-bat. They are 8-4 against the division and 3-0 in extra-inning games. All this without $155 million ace Jon Lester (0-2, 6.23 ERA in four starts) coming close to hitting his stride.
“I really think it’s a best-case scenario as far as the identity of the team,” Epstein said, “the mood and the spirit surrounding the team, how they really have bonded with one another and are fighting through all 27 outs.
“That’s been fantastic. It’s been a lot of fun to be around. But I don’t really overanalyze the early-season performance, because baseball’s all about grinding it out through six months. And you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”
It’s a good sign when Addison Russell’s Wrigley Field debut (1-for-3, one run scored) might be the sixth-most interesting headline that night. Compare that to the way the Chicago media treated Rizzo and Castro with wall-to-wall coverage when they first arrived at Clark and Addison.
“It’s just the strength of our lineup,” Rizzo said. “Anyone can do it at any time. We’re really happy with the way we’re grinding out at-bats early in the game, which can be setting us up for later in the game. We’re making pitchers work. That’s what we want to do every time. Every at-bat (should) be a stressful at-bat on the pitcher.
“We just have a really good feeling in here right now. And we just got to keep rolling with it.”