Cubs

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.”

Nightmare scenario for Cubs as Anthony Rizzo leaves Sunday's game with injury

Nightmare scenario for Cubs as Anthony Rizzo leaves Sunday's game with injury

A Cubs team already without its closer and top two shortstops will now hold its breath waiting to hear on Anthony Rizzo's status.

Rizzo left the Cubs game Sunday after rolling his ankle on a nasty-looking play in the top of the third inning. He approached a bunt in front of the plate and slipped on the Wrigley Field grass, making a huge divot and rolling his ankle in the process.

He finished the play (though his throw to first base was wide) and crumpled to the ground in serious pain as Cubs trainers, coaches and teammates rushed to his side:

The Cubs are calling it a sprained right ankle for Rizzo and initial X-rays at the ballpark did not reveal a fracture. He will get an MRI on Monday to determine the severity and we will know more about his timeline then. The Cubs welcome the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals to town Thursday night for a crucial four-game series that could decide the fate of the division.

Rizzo remained on the ground for a few minutes before getting to his feet and had to be helped back to the dugout by a trainer and teammate Jason Heyward. Ian Happ took over at first base.

The air completely went out of the stadium and to make matters worse, the Pirates jumped all over Jose Quintana and plated 5 runs in the inning immediately after Rizzo's injury. The Cubs offense later picked up the slack and notched a third straight game with double digit runs against the Pittsburgh pitching staff.

Considering the shape of the National League playoff race, this is a nightmare scenario for the Cubs. They entered Sunday 1.5 games behind the Washington Nationals for the top Wild-Card spot and 3 games behind the Cardinals in the division, with those two teams squaring off against each other in St. Louis Monday through Wednesday.

Rizzo has always been one of the Cubs' most important players, but he's been a huge key to the offensive turnaround of late by stepping into the leadoff role.

Since Joe Maddon moved him into the top spot last Thursday, Rizzo has responded by reaching base safely to lead off all four games and scoring runs in three of those instances. He drew a walk in the first inning Sunday and came around to score on Kris Bryant's homer, then walked again in the bottom of the second inning before leaving the game with the injury.

The leadoff spot has been a huge point of contention surrounding this team lately and for good reason. In 6 starts leading off, Rizzo has been a difference-maker hitting .421 with a .560 on-base percentage and 1.297 OPS while reaching base safely 14 times and scoring 7 runs. Even with those contributions, the Cubs are still last in the majors by a wide margin in terms of batting average (.207) and OBP (.288) out of the leadoff spot. 

Maddon already said he planned to roll with the veteran atop the order indefinitely. Rizzo's 2019 success only adds to his stellar career numbers in the leadoff spot (.328/.426/.602) and he currently leads all active players in OBP, SLG and OPS as a leadoff hitter (minimum 50 games).

In Rizzo's absence, Ben Zobrist might be the best bet to slot back into the leadoff spot, but they've had to manage his playing time to try to keep him fresh and he started both Saturday and Sunday's games. When Zobrist returned from personal leave earlier this month, he was immediately inserted atop the order, but after initial success, he struggled in his last four games there (2-for-16, 0 BB).

On days Zobrist doesn't play, Maddon may have to revert back to playing matchups in the leadoff spot, with Happ, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward possibilities against right-handed pitchers and Willson Contreras a potential option against lefties when he catches.

Defensively, the Cubs have gone with both Happ and Victor Caratini at first base when Rizzo has had to miss games in the past. Both would figure to be in the mix here, especially since Caratini could be freed up behind the plate with the Cubs currently carrying three catchers. Zobrist also has experience there and while those three are solid options, Rizzo is a two-time Gold Glover (including 2018) at the position, so any scenario where he's not playing first base is a downgrade for the Cubs.

Rizzo joins Javy Baez (fractured left thumb), Addison Russell (concussion) and Craig Kimbrel (right elbow inflammation) on the shelf, plus Bryant has been hampered by a right knee issue for the last couple months.

What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

What will the Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once - or if - Addison Russell is able to return to the field?

Russell is still in concussion protocol and it's unknown when he will resume baseball activities. There are no clear timelines for head injuries and every person responds differently.

He was still showing symptoms this weekend after taking a 94 mph fastball to the face in Milwaukee last Sunday. Russell meets with team doctors each day, but will be relegated to the bench until he is given medical clearance to return.

Even if Russell is able to play again over these next couple days, how could the Cubs possibly take Hoerner out of the lineup right now?

The rookie collected 3 more hits Saturday, including a 3-run homer in the sixth inning:

That now gives him 11 RBI in his first six MLB games.

"Nico's performance cannot be overlooked," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "That [homer] was the first pitch he saw yesterday? I mean, c'mon. And beyond that, the thing I'm really focused on is the defense. He's really done a nice job on defense, which we really need that moment out there. The offense has been a plus.

"I have not given that thought until I know that Addison is ready to rock and roll. And once he does, I know one thing for sure - even if Nico were to start the game, we could upgrade the defense later with Addison in the game, too. So it's one of those things - I don't even permit myself to go there. I don't even know if [Russell is] gonna play or not. I don't know that.

"So in the meantime, Nico: just keep doing what you're doing. He's impressed probably the industry, but more importantly - the clubhouse. The guys have really been impressed by him."

It’s been a nightmare season for Russell. He missed the first month serving out the rest of his suspension for violating MLB's domestic violence policy. He was optioned to Triple-A Iowa initially after the suspension and then came up to the big leagues, where he struggled and was unable to carve out consistent playing time despite the Cubs' need for production at second base.

Russell was then demoted to the minors again in late-July after persistent baserunning/mental mistakes. When Javy Baez went down with injury on the last homestand, Russell stepped in to play shortstop (his natural position), but committed a throwing error in three straight games last weekend in Milwaukee.

Saturday marked only the 95th professional game in Hoerner's career, but he has drawn rave reviews from every corner of the Cubs clubhouse, including seasoned veteran Jon Lester tabbing him as a sparkplug.

Less than a week ago, Hoerner was sitting at home in Oakland with his family, thinking his regular season was done and getting ready to play in the Arizona Fall League soon.

Now, he and his family are at Wrigley Field, soaking it all in:

"[My first game at Wrigley] was amazing. It felt like I had always hoped it would," Hoerner said. "Something you think about for a long time and it definitely lived up to the hype. I had hyped it up to my family a lot just from seeing one game here last year. I said it was unlike anything I had ever seen before and they agreed."

After his debut week, it's natural for fans to wonder if Hoerner should be the Cubs' starting shortstop on a playoff roster even if Russell is able to come back healthy. Baez's exact timeline looms as an x-factor here, too.

Who knows how this will all play out over the next two weeks, but the Cubs have to get to October first and right now, Hoerner is clearly the answer to help them do so.

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