Cubs

Cubs: Joe Maddon trying to get through to Starlin Castro

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Cubs: Joe Maddon trying to get through to Starlin Castro

MIAMI — Starlin Castro is a streaky hitter who provokes extreme reactions on social media, an All-Star shortstop with the ability to make spectacular plays while missing routine groundballs.

This is Year 6 for Castro in the big leagues, and the Cubs have already seen everything packed into Monday night’s 5-1 win over the Miami Marlins in Little Havana.

This shouldn’t be personal with Castro, who works hard, wants to get better and already has 899 career hits at the age of 25.

That begins to explain why manager Joe Maddon stays positive, even in dropping Castro to sixth in the lineup and watching him commit his 12th error at Marlins Park.

[MORE CUBS: Two months into season, Cubs looking like buyers and contenders]

“I just think he’s over-boogying a little bit,” Maddon said. “He really wants to do well. Everybody does, but I think it’s manifesting itself in pulling off the ball a little bit. (My message is): Just back off right now. Just a little bit. Just go play and see how it comes.”

You saw that when Castro screamed at himself for allowing a groundball to bounce off his left wrist in the seventh inning.

“You can replay the tape,” Maddon said. “What did he not do? He did not come and get the ball. Anytime he doesn’t come and get the ball, that’s when it breaks down for him. But it’s not just him. That’s any infield.

“That’s the thing we’ve been talking to him (about), ad nauseam actually. Just to really come and get the ball.

“Sometimes he just might not read it properly off the bat, and he gets kind of stuck, gets in groundball limbo there, where he just doesn’t know what to do.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Starlin Castro jersey right here]

The emotions had swung the other way earlier in the game, when Castro made a diving highlight-reel catch in shallow left field.

And Castro, who hadn’t homered since May 8, seemed to find his swagger again in the eighth inning, admiring the ball he smashed into the blue seats out in left field. He has too much hand-eye coordination — and too long a track record in the majors — to remain a .265 hitter with a .644 OPS.

For now, the Cubs will keep saying: Starlin is our shortstop.

“I keep talking about fundamentals and technique,” Maddon said. “If you want to really take it back, it goes to pre-pitch preparation, really bearing down on that. Just to try to get him to always step into the circle the same way prior to the pitch. (That’s) him and everybody else out there.

“Even though he’s been in the league many years, he still has a ways to grow defensively. And he’s going to grow. We’re going to help him grow. But I’ll stand by this guy. I think he’s awesome. By the end of this season, you’re going to see him making all of those plays.”

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here: