Cubs

Starlin Castro 'embarrassed' after mental mistake in Cubs loss

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Starlin Castro 'embarrassed' after mental mistake in Cubs loss

MINNEAPOLIS - There was no place for Starlin Castro defenders on Twitter Friday night.

The enigmatic shortstop found himself under fire on social media again as he made another mental mistake in the field.

In the first inning of Friday's game against the Twins, Castro booted a routine double-play grounder with the bases loaded and then hung his head while retrieving the ball, allowing Minnesota's Eddie Rosario to motor home from second base on a ball that never left the infield dirt.

Two runs scored on the play and set the tone for the entire evening in an eventual 7-2 Cubs loss.

"That's bad. That's really bad," Castro said. "That's the kind of mistake that can't happen. It's really embarrassing. 

"I apologized to all my teammates. That's not supposed to happen. It's tough. I don't have any excuse. That kind of thing can't happen again."

[MORE: Cubs 'just didn't have it' in sloppy loss to Twins]

Castro has been plagued by mental mistakes and attention lapses in the field over his career, getting ripped on national TV and building a perception in some corners of the baseball world as a guy who may always be prone to miscues like this.

The error was Castro's 14th of the season, even though the mental mistake doesn't count against him on the stat sheet. 

Castro is a stand-up guy, who always faces up to his mistakes. He stood in front of his locker, ready to meet the media immediately after Friday's game, answering every question and looking each reporter in the eye, never deflecting blame or trying to hide from his gaffe.

"It makes me feel really bad because that's not me," Castro said. "I'm better than that. That should never happen. Not even one time. Never.

"Those kinds of things piss me off. ... I don't have any excuse for that. That kind of thing can't happen."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon insists he doesn't care about the physical mistakes in a game where everybody messes up eventually. But Maddon has been preaching a sharp mental focus since coming to the organization and he believes there's still hope for Castro removing those sort of mental lapses from his game, even at age 25 and in his sixth big-league season.

"Yep, we can [fix it]," Maddon said. "I'm a big believer in that. He is young. He has experience, but he's young. 

"We just have to keep working on that. That's the way you've gotta coach as a manager. If these guys were perfect, they wouldn't need us. I really like the kid a lot. I know nobody feels worse than he does right now."

Castro said he talked to starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks after the first inning, apologizing and owning up to his mistake.

But Castro wasn't the only guy to make a mistake behind Hendricks in the game. Miguel Montero let a run come home with a wild throw to second base and Kris Bryant threw wide of the first-base bag in the first inning, sinking another shot at a double play.

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Still, Hendricks refused to place blame on his teammates after the game.

"Everybody makes mistakes," Hendricks said. "I'm up there making mistakes all the time. There's no way I'm going to criticize guys ever.

"But they had more plays. Starlin made a great play in the hole later in the game. I just told them to keep their heads up and they'll get some more."

Hendricks did work around the mistake, closing the door for the Twins in that first inning and limiting Minnesota to just those two runs. 

Castro tried to make up for the early gaffe, drilling a pair of fly balls to the wall, including a shot to center field in the top of the second with a runner on base.

At the end of the day, the Cubs still presented a unified front and nobody seemed to let their frustrations cloud the message of a 35-30 team hoping to be playing in the postseason this year.

"You have to be able to communicate. That's part of being a team and being good teammates for each other," Hendricks said. "We have to pick each other up.

"If a mistake like that happens, then maybe I can make big pitches, get the next guy out and we can get out of the inning. It's just about constantly picking guys up."

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

Five times in franchise history. That’s how often the Chicago Cubs have owned the best record in the National League heading into the All-Star game. This is the first time since 2008.

Here’s what makes it even more surprising.

They’ve been doing it without Kris Bryant for long periods of time. He’s missed roughly one quarter of the Cubs’ games. Bryant’s injuries have forced him to sit out 23 games and the 2016 National League MVP has just 10 home runs. How many teams could lose a player of that caliber and still be elite? Not many.

They’ve also found a way to the top with the other half of the Bryzzo Souvenir Co. going through multiple slumps during the first 93 games of the season. According to the advanced metric of “Weighted Runs Created Plus," Anthony Rizzo has been human at the plate. Rizzo’s wRC+ rating of 100 is exactly the league average. Last year at this time his wRC+ was 31 percent better than the league average. His current WAR is just 0.2.

Don’t get me wrong, Rizzo and Bryant have still made an impact and both have shown signs that their stocks for the second half should by on “buy now” list.

So, the Cubs’ 1-2 punch has been off their game and it’s not their biggest struggle in the so-called first half. That dubious honor belongs to the starting rotation. Their two offseason additions have been disasters. Yu Darvish hasn’t pitched and Tyler Chatwood hasn’t thrown strikes.

By this point, you’re wondering how the Cubs aren’t in 4th place? Well, for those three issues there have been just as many answers from different places. Maybe more.

In the outfield, Albert Almora’s .319 batting average ranks third in the NL and he simply seems to catch everything. Jason Heyward. Who saw this coming? He’s delivering at the plate on a regular basis. In 2016, Heyward’s wRC+ was 29 percent worse than the league average. This year, he’s climbed to a 109 rating or nine percent above average. He also catches everything. Combine those two with Kyle Schwarber’s 17 bombs and his massive defensive improvements and you have an impactful outfield. Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist have done their parts too.

Speaking of Happ, the Cubs have eight players with at least a .340 on-base percentage. Happ needs just eight more plate appearances to be the ninth Cubs’ batter on that list.

All major factors, but the biggest reason the Cubs are atop the NL despite all this adversity is “The Javy Baez Show”. El Mago has done it with his glove, his baserunning, his defense, his energy and his bat. Baez is the first player in MLB history with 18 doubles, six triples, 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases before the All-Star break.

So, how have the Cubs reached this place for the just the fifth time in franchise history? They’ve done it by grinding it out. They’ve done it as a team. Two traits that should serve them well the rest of the way. #EverybodyIn.