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Cubs finding pieces to build around Starlin Castro

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Cubs finding pieces to build around Starlin Castro

Two years ago, the Cubs promoted Starlin Castro and framed it as a way to get better defensively, with more range and a stronger arm. Anything on offense was supposed to be a bonus.

The 20-year-old shortstop smashed those expectations on May 7, 2010, launching a three-run bomb in his first at-bat and finishing with six RBI, the most ever for a player making his major-league debut.

Castro hasnt stopped hitting since that night in Cincinnati. In those two calendar years, only Michael Young (402), Ichiro Suzuki (397) and Adrian Gonzalez (391) have more hits than Castro (385).

Come and get it was the message Ryan Theriot delivered to reporters in spring training that year. The Cubs now have their All-Star shortstop to build around for the next decade.

Some of those pieces that could make the Cubs (12-17) relevant again showed up in Mondays 5-1 win over the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field.

Bryan LaHair and Ian Stewart hit back-to-back shots into the right-field bleachers off Tommy Hanson in the fourth inning. LaHair now has eight homers and 16 RBI in his last 19 games with an at-bat.

Castro and LaHair are giving the Cubs a 3-4 punch in the middle of the lineup. Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija who limited the Braves (18-12) to one run in seven innings have the stuff to potentially form the top of a playoff rotation.

A new administration saw the raw potential in Samardzija to become a frontline starter. Team president Theo Epstein said the art is in the consistency from one start to the next. Samardzija is now 4-1 with a 3.03 ERA.

Im doing a good job of slowing down, Samardzija said, and really thinking through at-bats and remembering what they did previously. Thats all part of pitching. They get to know you a little more, but you also get to know them a little more, too. You find what works and kind of stick with it. You got to mix it up.

Where Samardzija probably needed fresh voices and new sets of eyes to evaluate him, Castro just keeps hitting, not bothered by the changes in the organization, the media scrutiny, or the price of fame.

Castros hitting .350 and has reached base safely in 66 of his last 69 games. He went 2-for-4 on Monday night and smacked a two-out RBI single up the middle in the seventh inning, giving the Cubs an insurance run.

Castro has already played for three different managers Lou Piniella, Mike Quade and Dale Sveum, an old shortstop who started giving pointers during the first workout in spring training.

Sveum became the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach and watched their homegrown core develop into a playoff contender. Ready or not, Sveum felt it was best for the future of the franchise to commit to Castro as their No. 3 hitter this year.

Its just a learning curve now (with) situational hitting, Sveum said. (Its) men in scoring position and knowing what the pitchers going to give you. Prepare for that and understand what the pitchers going to do in certain situations.

Thats his biggest learning curve. Hes always going to hit hes just got the mechanics and the hand-eye coordination. Now the important part is (getting) the big hits later in the game when youre facing (better) velocity and stuff.

Of course, three nights after that spectacular debut, Castro made his first appearance at Wrigley Field and got booed after making three errors.

Castro had 56 errors during his first two years in the big leagues, and hes already committed eight this season. Year 3 will be pivotal.

On Opening Day, Epstein was asked a broad question about overall team defense, and his general answer seemed to give some insight into how the organization views Castro as a long-term answer at shortstop.

Theres an emphasis on fundamentals, making the routine play and not just talking about it, Epstein said. (Thats) physically breaking down proper footwork, proper throwing mechanics, proper team fundamental play on bunt plays and the running game. We spent a lot of time working on it.

Defense is one of those areas where you can get better individually and as a team through hard work. Its hard to take someone whos a .230 hitter with no power and no patience and say: Go rake and get on base and hit for power. Thats hard to do.

But you can take someone whos got some defensive issues and work with them through repetition. There can be a lot of improvement. I hope the hard work pays off.

Heres an interesting question for Cubs fans: Where will Castro be two years from now? His smiling face up on billboards? A leader in a clubhouse that includes Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson? The answer will probably say something about where the Cubs are heading.

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

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NBC Sports Chicago

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

Manchester City is coming off a season in which it dominated the English Premier League to the tune of a record 100-point season.

City is kicking off the preseason of its title defense in Chicago. City takes on Borussia Dortmund at Soldier Field on Friday night.

The last time the reigning Premier League champions were in Chicago was when rivals Manchester United came to Soldier to take on the Chicago Fire in 2011.

The Citizens won’t have the full arsenal of stacked stars for its U.S. tour, which also includes stops in New York and Miami as part of the International Champions Cup. Many of the team’s best players are getting a break after playing in the World Cup. Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, one of the stars of the tournament, is one of six Man City players to reach the semifinals.

Paul Dickov, who played for City for nearly 10 years between 1996 and 2008, is on tour with the team and talked about City’s preparations.

“The reason the clubs want to come to the States and play in International Champions Cup is the facilities are fantastic, the training facilities, the hotels, the treatment they get and just give them the best preparation going into what’s going to be a hard season,” Dickov said. “Nobody has won the Premier League back-to-back titles for nearly 10 years now so it’s going to be tough. Coming here and being able to prepare the way they can in the United States is going to put them on a long way to regain the title again.”

City brought the Premier League trophy to Wrigley Field on Thursday for the Cubs-Cardinals game. Dickov got to throw out the first pitch. The Scotsman threw a strike, much to his relief.

“I was quite calm beforehand, but I must admit when I got out there and I had to walk out there both hands started getting a bit sweaty,” he said. “I managed to make it and I got a fantastic reception off the Chicago Cubs fans so thank you to everybody at Chicago Cubs for having me there. It was great. Something I’ll never forget.”


Dickov compared Cubs fans to City fans in the way both teams struggled for a long time before finding success.

“They stuck by us through thick and thin when things weren’t as great,” Dickov said of Man City fans. “I suppose it’s a little bit like the Chicago Cubs here in Chicago. The fans turn out, they get 30-40 thousand, great atmosphere, back their team.”

While promoting the game, the Premier League trophy made multiple stops in Chicago, including with the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on an off day.

City also took the trophy and new signing Riyad Mahrez, who just joined Man City from 2016 champions Leicester City, to Haas Park in Logan Square. Haas Park includes a soccer field donated by Manchester City and the American embassy of the United Arab Emirates in 2012.

“The outcome of it has been great,” Dickov said. “Thousands of children and families benefiting, not just from the soccer part of it, but the education program as well. To be down there the other day for the full day and seeing the joy in the kids face seeing soccer here and the other activities that are on is great because, yeah, football is fantastic, soccer is fantastic and when you’re out there and you play you want to win, but it’s important, especially from Manchester City’s point of view, the city and the community. The stuff that they do off the field is second to none and it’s giving something back.”

Joe Maddon is liking the look of Cubs 'backwards' lineup

Joe Maddon is liking the look of Cubs 'backwards' lineup

No matter how much people complain and Tweet, Joe Maddon will never go with a set lineup every game.

But that doesn't mean he won't let certain spots in the lineup settle in for a couple weeks in a row.

That's what may be occuring right now with Anthony Rizzo holding serve as the "Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" once again.

Rizzo made his 5th straight start atop the Cubs order Friday after collecting a pair of doubles and a walk in Thursday's 9-6 victory.

Initially, moving Rizzo from the heart of the order to the top was in part to help the Cubs first baseman get going. Maddon is a big fan of hitting guys leadoff to help them reset mentally and find their stroke again.

But it is working — Rizzo entered play Friday 8-for-16 with 5 doubles, 3 walks, 3 runs and 3 RBI in the leadoff spot over the last week. The promptly reached on a hit-by-pitch and walk his first two times up Friday.

He's also been the team's biggest cheerleader:

So how long will Maddon keep this unconventional lineup?

"I don't know," he said, smiling and shaking his head. "I don't know. He came up again in crucial moments [Thursday]. He looks really good out there. I don't know. That's my exact answer."

Yes, Rizzo is looking good in the leadoff spot, but his insertion atop the order has given the Cubs lineup a new dynamic. 

With Rizzo first and Kris Bryant second, the guys that are historically the Cubs' top two run producers are hitting atop the order and "behind" the pitcher's spot. 

But they're also the Cubs' top two on-base guys and Maddon is liking the look of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — two high-contact guys — following Bryzzo in the order, as they have done recently. (It doesn't hurt to have the NL leader in RBI — Javy Baez — hitting cleanup, either.)

"It's almost a backwards way of doing this right now that I'm finding fascinating," Maddon said. "So I'm just gonna let it play for just a little bit and see where it takes us."

It's taken the Cubs on a 4-game winning streak endcapping the All-Star Break, though the Cardinals got up big early Friday afternoon.

For a team that leads the NL in just about every important offensive category, it's going to be a huge key moving forward if Rizzo gets going on a consistent basis in the second half.