'It's game on' — Anthony Rizzo won't back down after Padres call him out for 'cheap shot'

'It's game on' — Anthony Rizzo won't back down after Padres call him out for 'cheap shot'

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.”

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Four days into the Cubs’ training camp restart, we’ve only begun to get acquainted with the new normal of baseball rhythms and routines that we can only hope will result in a 2020 season of 60 games.

If the league can fix some of its early testing issues and keep enough players on enough teams healthy enough to start the season, what might come into play for the Cubs and the actual baseball.

Early observations after about a dozen Zoom sessions with team personnel and two intrasquad scrimmages:

NUTS: Home cooked?

The Cubs, who draw so reliably in one of the unique ballparks in the majors, might have more to lose than most teams without fans allowed to attend games when the season starts July 24.

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Just how much of the Confines’ home-field advantage is lost will be a matter of “wait-and-see,” manager David Ross said.

“There’s always an advantage to playing in your own park,” he said Sunday. “You feel more comfortable you woke up in your own bed. You’re not staying in a hotel room, which especially now, where you feel like outside spaces just aren’t comfortable as they used to be, probably [gives] a slight advantage in your city.

“There’s no substitute for fans,” he added. “There’s probably a slight advantage, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it used to be.”

What Ross didn’t mention were the rooftops across Waveland and Sheffield, which are planning to operate at 25-percent capacity when games start, suggesting at least a few hundred fans within cheering and booing distance.

“You’re going to hear them loud and clear, too,” pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “I promise you that.”

BOLTS: Taking the fifth

All you need to know about Alec Mills’ ability to adjust and immediately step into an important role is what he did in an emergency start against the first-place Cardinals at Wrigley last year with the Cubs a half-game out and barely a week left in the season.

He hadn’t started anywhere in a month — and that was in the minors. But the guy who pitched out of the bullpen just three times in the four intervening weeks, pitched two outs deep into the fifth inning that day and didn’t allow a run (the bullpen took care of that, in a loss).

No wonder when Ross talks about Mills replacing the injured Jose Quintana (thumb) in the rotation, he says, “I’ve got a ton of confidence.”

He’s not the only one. “I’ve always had the mindset of doing whatever I can to stay ready and help in any way,” said Mills after pitching a strong three innings in a simulated game Sunday. “Obviously, with an unfortunate injury like this, I think it’s just even more heightened.

“I’m ready to do whatever, whether it needs to be maybe a start here or there, a couple more starts, long guy out of the pen — just whatever I need to do I pride myself on being ready to do that.”

CHATTER: The mask at hand

“It’s a little different. You leave the house with a phone, your keys, your wallet and your mask.”

—Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo on his and his teammates’ new daily normal.

“Everybody is thinking about it, but we try to get here and understand this is our safe zone and we’re trying to create that [within] the things that we’re going to do on and off the field.”

—Ross on players weighing the risk of playing during the pandemic against the safety precautions and protocols the team has built in and around its Wrigley Field bubble.


2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

Imagine it’s late September. The Cubs have already hosted the White Sox for three unforgettable games at Wrigley Field — fans packed the rooftops (at 25 percent capacity) around the ballpark. Now, it’s time to head to the South Side for the final series of the season, rife with playoff implications.

If the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t derail the 2020 MLB season, that scene very well could become a reality.

The Cubs regular season schedule, which MLB released Monday, features six Crosstown Classic games. The first of two series between the Chicago teams runs Aug. 21-23 at Wrigley Field. The second is penciled in for Sept. 25-27 at Guaranteed Rate Field. Both three-game series include Friday and Saturday evening games, and end with a Sunday afternoon game.

The Crosstown rivalry consumes 1/10 of the Cubs schedule this shortened season.

“It’s exciting, right?” Cubs manager David Ross said.

And quite convenient. That’s the point of a regionally-based schedule, which has the Cubs facing only NL Central and AL Central teams. While trying to limit the spread of COVID-19, that convenience becomes especially important.

“We get to sleep in our own beds at night,” Ross said of the Crosstown Classic. “We can set up things where if we need to we can work out here and drive over like you would in an Arizona spring training. There’s a lot of options that we have for us that we can do with an in-town team. I feel like that’s definitely a luxury.”

Some of those same advantages apply to the Cubs’ games at Milwaukee as well. As is the case with all their division rivals, the Cubs are scheduled to play the Brewers 10 times, including opening day at Wrigley Field on July 24.

As for their mid-September series at Milwaukee: “Players have the ability to drive up day of the game, drive back afterwards or get a car back,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of freedom and comfort in sleeping in your own bed, especially in the scenarios we’re in this year.”

The Cubs’ setup with the White Sox is mirrored over in Missouri between the Cardinals and Royals; they will also play each other six times. The Cubs will play three or four games against each of the four other teams in the AL Central. The White Sox are expected to be a stauncher opponent than the Royals, automatically giving the Cubs a tougher route through their interleague schedule.

But that’s a small price to pay for six rivalry games in Chicago.