Cubs see Anthony Rizzo elevating his game to a whole new level


Cubs see Anthony Rizzo elevating his game to a whole new level

PHOENIX – Almost everyone around the Cubs has been so conditioned to talk about the kids and the future that it becomes easy to overlook Anthony Rizzo and the special season he is having right now.

But you couldn’t miss it on Saturday night at Chase Field, the franchise first baseman delivering the go-ahead, three-run homer in the ninth inning of a 9-6 comeback win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

An All-Star last year, Rizzo has taken his game to new heights, lifting the Cubs up along with him. So when Arizona reliever Enrique Burgos left a slider up, it almost landed in the swimming pool on the right-field patio.

Rizzo finished with six RBI, nearly hitting a grand slam in the fifth inning, or at least dropping his bat as if it was gone. He settled for a three-run double when it bounced off the left-field fence.

[MORE CUBS: Jorge Soler isn’t living up to his own high expectations]

“At the end of the day, Rizzo took care of business,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He put us all on his back and carried us to victory. That’s what I expect from him.”

Yes, Rizzo covered up for a few mistakes, the most glaring being the ball second baseman Addison Russell dropped on a flip from shortstop Starlin Castro, leading to three unearned runs charged to Arrieta in the fifth inning.

Rizzo is by far the most reliable defender on the 25-and-under infield. He has as many home runs – nine – as stolen bases. He’s getting on base 44 percent of the time and putting up a 1.030 OPS.

“He’s in that really elite group of baseball players regarding how they work an at-bat,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And then on top of that, he’s a very good defender, too. He’s a really complete player. Now he’s turning into a good baserunner. He’s really elevated his game on all levels.” 

It’s probably not a total coincidence that this is happening at a time when the Cubs are 24-18 and planning to make some noise in the National League. Rizzo has played on fifth-place teams in each of the last four seasons.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“It’s just fun coming to the park every day,” Rizzo said. “This group of guys is awesome. We’re really young. We have a lot of fun, on and off the field. We’re like a band of brothers.”

The Kris Bryant Effect is real. Russell should be an everyday contributor for years to come. Castro is already a three-time All-Star. Maddon has called Jorge Soler “a monster player in the making.”

But the Cubs – who came back from deficits of 2-0, 5-4 and 6-4 – are trying to build their relentless American League-style lineup around Rizzo.

“He’s not giving away at-bats,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t give away pitches, let alone at-bats. He’s in the moment all the time offensively, making adjustments. You always hear hitting coaches say: Take what the pitcher gives you. He’s willing to do that. He doesn’t try to force things all the time. That’s why he’s been so successful.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound


Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.