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This is what Starlin Castro has been waiting for with Cubs

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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.”

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

It was never going to be perfect.

But Major League Baseball’s coronavirus testing system needs to be good enough.

That may not seem like an especially high bar to set.

But so far it has been a difficult one for baseball to clear.

In fact, the latest example of baseball's biggest challenge in pulling off a 60-game season played out at Wrigley Field on Monday. That's when the team that by all indications has done the best job of establishing and following safe practices had its manager and five other “Tier 1” members of the organization sit out activities “out of an abundance of caution” because their latest COVID-19 tests, from Saturday, remained “pending.”

Tier 1, by the way, comprises the 80-something members of the organization with the highest access, including players and coaches.

The results had been analyzed. But as pitching coach Tommy Hottovy explained, they appeared to be in a batch of samples that included at least one positive test, the batch involving multiple teams. So they were retested. Five of those retested samples, including manager David Ross’, were negative, the team said late Monday, with the sixth considered “compromised” and another test done.

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The sixth did not belong to a player.

Give the Cubs another gold star for getting through yet another round of tests — and yet another glitch in that process — without having a player test positive.

But give MLB another kick in the ass. The testing issues don’t seem to be as bad as they were throughout the league that first holiday weekend of processing. But it hasn’t fixed this thing yet, either.

Whether it’s a lab-capacity issue, a quality issue or a shipping issue, it’s not even close to good enough.

Not for 30 teams barely a week from leaving their individual training-site bubbles to start playing each other for two months. Not when more than one-third of those teams play in locales considered hot spots for the pandemic. Not in the world’s most infected country.

“We do feel comfortable in this bubble that we’ve kind of created here,” said Hottovy, who was hit hard by the virus for a month before camp started. “When the season starts though and we start traveling and we start putting ourselves in some different circumstances, we just don’t know what to expect with that.

“We’re still taking this day-to-day for sure.”

Players across baseball, including Cubs star Kris Bryant, said they were upset and surprised at how unprepared MLB’s testing system appeared to be when camps opened. Two weeks of testing later, and just enough issues persist to make the league’s entire 2020 undertaking look more tenuous than ever.

The season starts July 23. That’s not much time to get it “good enough” — never mind to get it right. But, again, we're not asking for perfection.

The league protocols require testing thousands of players and other team personnel every other day through the end of the season.

Imagine sitting a manager and three or four players from a single team on a game day because of “pending” or “compromised” test results. Imagine that happening two or three times a week to various teams. Or worse — imagine a given team doesn’t exercise “an abundance of caution” and puts the players or staff in question on the field or in the dugout and clubhouse anyway.

“The only concern that I have right now is how long the test will take to get the results back,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said on Thursday. “Other than that, I don’t think I am at risk inside of the ballpark because the Cubs have been doing the best they can to keep us safe in here."

“I don’t have any concerns about my teammates, because I trust them. I know we all are doing our best to keep [each other] safe, and that way we can have a season this year.”

Contreras expressed tolerance with the system so far and was reluctant to point a finger at MLB or anyone else.

“But how can that get better?” he said. “I have no answer for that.”

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is as much as it matters that an answer is found quickly.

Players, staff and their families already have taken on the daily stress and anxiety of this health risk and the every-other-day process of holding your breath until the next result comes in.

“You get that test day coming up when you might get results, and it’s a little bit of that unknown, a little bit of anxiety of, ‘Have I done everything right?’ “ Ross said. “You start running back the day since you’ve been tested and what you’ve done, where you’ve gone, who you’ve been in contact with, just in case something bad may come back on your test. It’s real.”

Thirteen players, including Giants star Buster Posey, already have declined to play this season, all but one without a pre-existing condition that would qualify as “high risk” under the agreement between players and management.

Angels superstar Mike Trout heads a list of several more who have talked openly about opting out at some point, depending on how things look as we get closer to games.

That includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish, who said Sunday, “I still have concerns” and that he has not ruled out heading home if he doesn’t feel it’s safe anymore for him or his family to keep playing.

Maybe Trout, Darvish, Posey and the rest of those players have the right idea.

In fact, maybe we’d all be better off if baseball rededicated its testing capacity to a general public that suddenly is facing shortages again in a growing number of hot spots.

But if baseball is going to stick to its plan and try to pull off this season, then it needs to get this right. Right now.

Nobody’s expecting anything great at this point. Maybe not even especially good. But good enough? In the next week or so?

Would that be too much to ask?

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How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

One more year of Jon Lester?

A few months ago that looked uncertain at best — figuring to come down to a $25 million decision for the Cubs to mull at the end of this season (or a $15 million decision, given the $10 million buyout on the option clause).

But the vesting part of Lester’s hefty seventh-year option on his original six-year, $155 million contract suddenly looks tantalizingly within reach for the longtime ace.

Major League Baseball and the union have finalized an agreement on multiple details for calculating contracts in 2020, including vesting contract options, according to documents obtained by NBC Sports Chicago.

Performance thresholds for vesting options will be prorated for the 60-game season and rounded up to the next out. 

So that 200-inning threshold Lester needed to reach to assure the additional $25 million year — a threshold he hasn’t reached since 2016, when he was 32?

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In a season only 37.04 percent as long as normal, that means 74 1/3 innings earn the extra year.

It’s still roughly the same average of innings for 12 projected starts (6.17) this year as it would have been for 32 (6.25) in a full season.

But that’s a lot fewer potential aches, pains and injuries to navigate for two months compared to six months — and a stretch that doesn’t include the bone-chill cold of April and weather volatility of May.

Lester, who ranks eighth on the all-time list of postseason innings pitched, said when spring training opened in February he “obviously” wanted to finish his career as a Cub.

“Hopefully, I have a good year, and it’s null and void, and we don’t have to talk about it,” Lester said then of trying to vest the option.

“I signed here hoping that the option was kind of going to take care of itself and [I’d] finish out the seventh year. After that, I can’t predict tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen two years down the road.”

Lester pitched in his first intrasquad game of the restarted training period on Sunday and looked strong enough to get sent out to face two more batters after finishing his scheduled two innings — retiring seven of nine, with one reaching on an error and another on a 15-foot tapper in front of the plate.

“He was commanding all of his pitches,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “From what I saw, he’s looking in good shape.”

Monday's agreement between MLB and the union also included details on calculating awards bonuses, roster bonuses and contract escalators. And unlike the normal injured list, players won't lose "active time" on the roster while on the COVID-19 IL.

The Athletic was first to report Monday's agreement.

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