Cubs

This is what Starlin Castro has been waiting for with Cubs

starlin042815.png

This is what Starlin Castro has been waiting for with Cubs

Starlin Castro believes the last five years made him a stronger person and a better player.

Wrigley Field is a place that chews people up and spits them out, but it’s also pretty sweet when the Cubs get rolling. This looks like it could be a block party through the summer, with Castro right in the middle of it all.

Castro has been the lightning rod for five fifth-place teams, so he’s going to enjoy nights like Tuesday, when the Cubs wore down the Pittsburgh Pirates during a 6-2 victory, nearing the end of April with a 12-7 record and a growing sense of confidence.

“Now, I’m starting to know my talent,” said Castro, who went 3-for-5 with an RBI, a stolen base and two runs scored. “I’m starting to know everything that I can do on the field.

“That’s the moment that I waited for all my life.”

Castro is only 25, a three-time All-Star shortstop with his prime years still in front of him, locked into a reasonable contract that could run through the 2020 season. That usually got lost amid all the Twitter freak-outs, media takedowns and trade rumors.

[MORE: Cubs keeping an eye on Almora, Baez]

Castro appears to be raising his game on a contending team that’s already creating some national buzz. He’s batting .342, showing the swagger and unbelievable hand-eye coordination that made him the National League’s 2011 hits leader.

“I have not been here before, but I hear different people, what they say,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Right now, he is engaged, man. He is engaged in every pitch, offensively and defensively.

“He’s totally invested right now. It’s really fun to watch.”

Look, Castro always played hard, worked on his defense and wanted to be in the lineup for all 162 games. He’s slammed enough helmets to show how much he cares. It’s just that the zoning-out moments always seemed to go viral.

Would you be locked in all the time if your franchise decided to write off multiple major-league seasons? Castro seems to be energized by playing alongside the prospects everyone had been talking about: Addison Russell, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler.

Castro “Respected 90” leading off the second inning, smashing a ball toward Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, signaling safe after running through first base and beating the throw for an infield single (after a replay review).

Castro then went first-to-third on Junior Lake’s single up the middle and that hustle sparked a three-run rally. A deep lineup eventually knocked out Pirates lefty Jeff Locke in the fourth inning after forcing the 2013 All-Star to throw 86 pitches.

“If you win, everything’s easier,” Castro said. “We’ll be together. We tried really hard to get better every year. I think now we got the people that we want. We got the people that everybody was waiting for to be here with us.

“It’s awesome. You got all nine hitters to protect you. They have to pitch to you, because they got another good one behind you. It’s easier to hit like that.”

It’s also easier inside a clubhouse with an established veteran presence, where Castro and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo don’t have to be the daily focus.

“We just go out and play,” Rizzo said. “We answer the questions we need to answer, but it’s all about winning games now. Nothing else matters.”

[MORE: Maddon, Cubs preaching patience on Jorge Soler]

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein doesn’t believe anyone is untouchable – and he will eventually have to answer the long-term question at shortstop – but he’s also been one of Castro’s biggest defenders.

“I’ve always thought Starlin was a really, really good player,” Epstein said. “His defense, I think, took a big step forward last year and he’s carried it over into this year. He gets a chance to hide a little bit in the lineup now. He doesn’t have to be the focal point for the opposition. He’s playing really good baseball on both sides. I’m proud of him.”

Castro did bobble the ball trying to make a backhanded play in the third inning, committing his third error this season. But that doesn’t mean Russell should move over from second base tomorrow. Castro also made a diving stop in the fifth inning, lunging to his right and catching a line drive to steal a base hit from Francisco Cervelli.

“He’s been really good,” Maddon said. “I saw him in spring training. Obviously, he did not play that well at shortstop. I think part of it was we – I – challenged him to win a Gold Glove this year. And he might have been pressing or pushing to fulfill that thought and didn’t exactly know how to do it.

“Him and ‘Jonesy’ (third-base coach Gary Jones) have been working really hard at simplifying his approach, coming to get the ball, not laying back, pretty much taking charge of reading hops and playing through the ball better. Simple stuff. But if you’re not doing it, then the residue is normally not anything good.”

Castro also sprinted for an infield single in the eighth inning – and moments later got thrown out trying to steal second base – but Maddon wants an environment where his players aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

“It’s really been fun to watch (Castro),” Maddon said. “Totally animated. When he is in a position to do something to help us and does not, he’s really upset with himself. I don’t want him to do that too often. I don’t like when a guy beats himself up too hard. But he’s really holding himself to a high level of accountability right now, personally.

“With regards to (his teammates), especially young Latin players, his interaction with them is really taking on the form of veteran leadership. So right now, I can’t say enough good things about the guy. I’ve been really impressed.”

Standing at his locker after the game, Castro put on a black Air Jordan hat and turned around to face the media. He listened to a question about his fifth manager in six seasons.

“You need a guy that trusts your talent and lets you play,” Castro said. “That’s the thing that Joe did. They trust us. They know what we can do. That’s the most (important thing): Let me play and I can play hard for you every day.”

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

1020_albert_almora.jpg
USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times (5 intentional) in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 6 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."