Cubs prospect Szczur: Baseball 'just seems right'

Cubs prospect Szczur: Baseball 'just seems right'

Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011
2:15 p.m.

By Jim Salisbury

Matt Szczur would love to see the Chicago Cubs end their century-old drought and win the World Series in 2011.

Hes rooting for them in a big way.

But if they want to wait a few years until he makes it to Wrigley Field well, he wont complain.

That would be great, a dream come true, to be in centerfield and win a World Championship, Szczur said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

To Philadelphia-area sports fans, Szczur is the Villanova University kid who led the Wildcats football team to a national championship in 2009. Hes also the young man who took time off from his junior year baseball season at Villanova to help save a young girls life with a bone marrow transplant.

To Cubs officials, Szczur is all this and then some. They selected him in the fifth round of the major league draft last June and were so impressed with his play and potential in the minor leagues last summer that they have agreed to pay him 1.5 million for the coming season. The Cubs believe Szczur is worth the investment. All they asked was that Szczur give up his aspirations of playing in the NFL so he can focus completely on baseball.

The Cubs have gotten to know Matt as a baseball player and a person and they wanted to do everything they could to ensure he remained a Cub, said Rex Gary, Szczurs Philadelphia-based agent.

Szczur, a receiver and return specialist who was MVP of the 2009 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision game, was a candidate to be selected as high as the fourth round in the NFL draft. He had been in Florida preparing to showcase his talents in the Senior Bowl when he accepted an offer to have dinner with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry on Sunday night.

Hendry made his pitch.

Good-bye, Senior Bowl. Hello, Cubs.

Jim and I had a very nice dinner, Szczur said. There was no pressure at all. I just looked at the figure they offered and it was tough to pass up. I love both sports. Going this way just seems right.

Im definitely going to miss football, but the way I look at it is I was going to have to give up one either way. I would have missed which ever one I would have given up equally. I dont really have a first love I love both. It was a hard decision, but I think its the right one for me.

Szczur pronounced Caesar is a 21-year-old product of Erma, N.J., and Lower Cape May Regional High School. He is 12 credits shy of a Liberal Arts degree at Villanova.

On the football field at Villanova, Szczur won All-America honors. On the baseball field, he was an All-Big East outfielder, finishing with a career batting average of .392 in two seasons.

Szczur had an impressive pro debut with the Cubs last summer, hitting .347 with a .414 on-base percentage in 25 games at the rookie and Single A levels. He began his pro career with a 21-game hitting streak. His season ended with a trip to Wrigley Field, where he took batting practice with the big team before a game.

That was unbelievable because I was in one of the last groups and the stands were full, Szczur said. It was crazy, a great feeling.

I just loved the pro ball experience. It was so much fun being able to focus on baseball fulltime.

Szczur, 5-11 and 200 pounds, has excellent speed and strength to go with an impressive bat. Scouts believe hes only begun to scratch the surface of his baseball potential and will benefit by concentrating fulltime on the sport.

During his time at Villanova, Szczur also shined off the field. He missed 10 baseball games last season while undergoing a procedure to donate bone marrow to a young girl with leukemia. Szczur doesnt know the girls identity. Maybe someday shell watch him play in Wrigley Field.

I missed a few games and spent a couple of days in a hospital bed, but I got to help save a life, Szczur said. It was a great experience.

So, too, was his first season of professional baseball.

So much so that hes ready for more, even if it means giving up football.

This is the first time Ill be giving baseball 100 percent concentration, Szczur said. Im excited to see what it brings to me.
Jim Salisbury is's Phillies Insider.

David Bote remains in lineup after Kris Bryant's return, headlines Cubs defense

David Bote remains in lineup after Kris Bryant's return, headlines Cubs defense

Cubs third baseman David Bote charged down the line and called off pitcher Alec Mills.

Bote snagged the bunt with his bare right hand and slung it across is body. Bote’s throw to first beat the Royals’ Adalberto Mondesi by half a step.

“It does nothing but fire you up,” Mills said after the Cubs’ 2-0 win over the Royals on Monday.

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Bote had been filling in for Kris Bryant at third for the previous two games, but when Bryant returned on Monday, Bote remained in the lineup. Even as a role player, Bote entered Monday's series opener with a top-5 batting average (.278) on the team and  tied for second in RBIs (5). But Cubs manager David Ross also trusted him in the infield with a groundball pitcher on the mound. Bote’s defense shone.

It stood out even in a game that included an outstanding tag by shortstop Javier Báez to catch a runner stealing and Jason Heyward covering a ton of ground in right field.

“I’m proud of our defense,” Ross said. “That’s something that we’ve emphasized that could be better, and it’s been so great. These guys are getting a lot of work in.”

This time, Bote knew long before the game that he was playing. On Saturday, when Bryant was a late scratch due to an upset stomach, Bote found out five minutes before first pitch that he was starting at third base.

On Monday, Bote remained at third, and Bryant started in left field. That setup put extra speed in left on a windy day and allowed Kyle Schwarber, who had played in left for the past three games, to be the designated hitter.

Bote worked with bench coach Andy Green on slow-rolling ground balls before the game, according to Ross.

 “This is one of the teams that bunt a lot in this league,” Báez said, “and we were ready for it.”

Bote proved that with a bare-handed grab seventh inning, when the Cubs were protecting a one-run lead. He threw out Mondesi for the final out of the inning.  But then, he made another bare-handed play the next inning.

Bare-handing a bunt and throwing across the body on the run is a play exclusive to third basemen. The downside of playing multiple positions is a utility man like Bote has to spread his receptions out among those positions.

Bote had attempted a bare-handed play once before in the season, but he didn’t field it cleanly – there’s a reason infielders use their gloves whenever possible. The margin for error is so much smaller without them.

In the eighth inning, Whit Merrifield hit a weak ground ball to Bote. The third baseman charged, fielded the ball with his right hand, and again threw across the diamond on the run. That was the second out of the inning.

“Both of those plays could have gone either way,” Bryant said of Bote’s bare-handed grabs, “and then there’s runners on base there. You don’t know how the game’s going to turn out.”

Case in point: Jorge Soler hit a single right after Bote’s eight-inning play. If Bote hadn’t thrown Merrifield out, he would be in scoring position with one out.

Instead, Rowan Wick took over for Casey Sadler on the mound and struck out the next batter to end the inning.

“It’s those little things in the games that don’t get too much attention,” Bryant continued, “but they definitely do change the momentum of everything out there.”



How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

One of the unnoticed benefits of Javy Báez’s game-ending single in the 11th inning Sunday against the Pirates was that it eliminated a 12th inning that would have belonged to the struggling Craig Kimbrel.

That was David Ross’ next man out of the bullpen, the Cubs manager said Monday.

Instead, we watched the man who would be — and should be — the closer pitch out of the contrived jam (man on second) that is the start of each extra inning this year, and earn the win.

Or did we?

One day after veteran Jeremy Jeffress needed just nine pitches to beat the Pirates in the best of four impressive bullpen appearances, Rowan Wick earned a four-out save in a 2-0 victory over the Royals on Monday night.

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And just like that, the Cubs unveiled a closer-by-committee scheme, if not a closer controversy.

The way the first eight games looked, it's hard to imagine having enough reliable pitchers for a quorum. much less a bona fide committee, among the 14 pitchers who have occupied roster spots in the Cubs’ pen so far.

But until or unless Kimbrel (four walks, two homers, one wild pitch and four outs so far) gets right again, that’s the plan for closing out close games, Ross said after Monday’s game.

“I think every night will be different,” he said. “Every night we’re trying to find the best matchups and who’s throwing well.”

Jeffress is the one guy in the group who has the track record, the unflappable veteran presence and the cold-blooded performance so far this year that included escaping a pair of bases-loaded jams in addition to Sunday’s 11th-inning work.

Whether Jeffress was considered unavailable Monday because of high-leverage innings both Saturday and Sunday or Ross liked Wick’s 95-mph fastball/curveball mix against the middle of the Royals order, it was last year’s rookie success story on this night.

“It’s going to be a full team effort down there,” Ross said. “I’m not scared to pull the trigger in a lot of areas with a lot of those guys. They’ve done a really good job of answering the bell here lately and we’ll continue to assess on a daily basis.”

For now it has meant eight consecutive scoreless innings the last two nights against two of the worst teams in baseball for a Cubs bullpen that ranked last in the majors in ERA and several other categories.

That’s not what Ross means when he talks about looking for matchups.

But 10 games into 60-game season, that bullpen almost certainly will continue to be assessed on a daily basis top to bottom.

And with its $43 million closer looking like the weakest link since September, the end of any game with a close lead might be the most intriguing thing to watch with this team for as long as this pandemic season might last.