If the Cubs wanted to send a message, this wouldn’t be the team to target. The San Diego Padres are a largely unrecognizable group of cast-offs and unproven players, already 15 games under .500 and tanking for the future.
This isn’t the 2015 Cubs fighting to create their own identity and take down the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs are so far beyond destroying the “Lovable Losers” label — or thinking that one play in a 3-2 win could somehow spark the defending World Series champs out of this blah “start” to a season that’s almost halfway over.
But in many ways, the Cubs take their cues from Anthony Rizzo, who knocked Padres catcher Austin Hedges out of Monday night’s game at Wrigley Field and calmly fired back after manager Andy Green called the collision a “cheap shot.”
“By no means do I think that’s a dirty play at all,” Rizzo said. “I’ve talked to a lot of umpires about this rule. And my understanding is: If they have the ball, it’s game on.”
Green vented his frustrations to San Diego reporters after watching the crash that ended the sixth inning, Rizzo tagging up from third base on the low line drive that Kris Bryant hit to ex-Cub Matt Szczur in center field.
Szczur caught the ball on the run and fired it in to Hedges, who grabbed it on the bounce, pivoted to his left and felt the full force of Rizzo (listed at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds). Hedges — a promising catcher the Padres drafted during the Jed Hoyer/Jason McLeod administration — tumbled backwards and held onto the ball for the double play that preserved a 2-1 lead before leaving with a bruised right thigh.
“I went pretty much straight in,” Rizzo said. “He caught the ball. He went towards the plate.
“It’s a play where I’m out by two steps. I slide, he runs into me. It’s just one of those plays where it’s unfortunate he had to exit.”
Rizzo — who bombed with the Padres during his big-league debut in 2011 before becoming a star in Chicago — essentially shrugged off Green’s suggestion that Major League Baseball will have to impose some form of discipline.
“The league will look at it,” Rizzo said. “It’s very sensitive because it doesn’t happen (often). But from my understanding of the rules, it’s a play at the plate.”
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Manager Joe Maddon made Rizzo his leadoff hitter last week as a last resort, trying to spark a team that’s now 35-34 and only 1.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. Rizzo reached base to lead off a game for the sixth straight time with a bunt up the third-base line against the defensive shift, notched an RBI with a sacrifice fly in the third inning and set the Hedges crash in motion with a leadoff triple into the right-field corner.
A verified Twitter account for the Padres Radio Network posted a photo of the collision with this caption: “Well #Padres fans, should the #Padres retaliate in this series for the slide by Rizzo? RT if you think yes, absolutely they should.”
Maddon — an anti-rules guy in general — has never been a fan of The Buster Posey Rule.
“You don’t see it anymore, because the runner thinks he has to avoid it,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t. If the guy’s in the way, you’re still able to hit him. I think we just retrained the mind so much right there that they look to miss (the catcher).
“I’d much prefer what Rizz did tonight. And what he did was right, absolutely right, so there’s nothing wrong with that. Nobody could tell me differently.
“It’s a good play. The catcher’s in the way. You don’t try to avoid him in an effort to score and hurt yourself. You hit him, just like Rizz did.”
The Cubs still managed only two runs in six-plus innings against Clayton Richard — the lefty they acquired for a dollar from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate in the middle of the 2015 season and designated for assignment last summer — after hitting into double plays in the first, second and fifth innings.
Javier Baez scored the go-ahead run from first base in the seventh inning when Jose Pirela misplayed Albert Almora Jr.’s double in left field. “Go Cubs Go” played on the sound system only after bulletproof closer Wade Davis escaped a second-and-third, one-out jam in the ninth inning.
But the lasting image will be Rizzo vs. Hedges. You know how Jon Lester will score it after his “we’re out there playing with a bunch of pansies” rant following last month’s loss at Busch Stadium.
“I was fired up — I loved it,” said Lester, who this time got the quality start no-decision. “Obviously, you don’t want to see anybody get hurt, but that’s part of baseball.
“The slide into second — I think that kind of came across as a little bit of an excuse in that game, just because we lost that game. And I think it looked bad as far as what we were saying about it. But that’s baseball. That’s the way the game’s been played for a long, long time.
“He caught the ball. He protected the plate. And Rizz had nowhere to go.”