Cubs

Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

The story could not have followed a more perfect trajectory:

Injured star (Anthony Rizzo) makes a miraculous recovery, hits a big home run in a huge game and helps will his team to victory.

Except for the last part. 

After suffering a nasty-looking ankle injury in Sunday's game, Rizzo was announced as the Cubs' leadoff hitter and first baseman about 20 minutes before first pitch Thursday night and hit a game-tying homer in his second trip to the plate.

It was the only offense the Cubs were able to muster against Jack Flaherty, but they pulled off an epic comeback in the ninth inning — with Javy Baez scoring the game-tying run in his first action since Sept. 1.

That was quickly erased with Matt Carpenter's go-ahead homer off Craig Kimbrel in the top of the 10th inning and the Cardinals went on to win 5-4 and bury the Cubs 4 games back in the division.

But nobody's pointing the finger at Rizzo, who has spent the last four days in a walking boot and was unable to even put weight on his right ankle up until Wednesday when he retired his snack-filled scooter. 

Joe Maddon was planning on being without one of his most important players until the moment Rizzo was out in left field, running and jumping on the grass

Rizzo didn't even know he was going to be able to play until that moment, either.

"You get the questions of waiting a couple more days, but we don't have a couple more days," Rizzo said. "We gotta win now. And I love this team...I love playing. That's what I want to do. It's what I love doing — playing baseball, especially for this team that we're fighting at Wrigley Field in late September to go to the playoffs and that's where all the magic happens."

He exited the game after the fifth inning and immediately went back into the training room to continue treatment. He received a cortisone shot Monday and otherwise has been religiously following the "RICE" treatment plan (rest, ice, compression, elevation), with help from the Cubs medical staff at the ballpark and his wife — "Nurse Emily" — at home.

"I kept saying, 'this ankle doesn't stand a chance,'" Rizzo said. "It's still obviously sore, but it was good enough to play."

Rizzo walked into and out of the Cubs press conference room without the boot and said he felt "good" and was hoping to play Friday, though he admitted he would be smart and let the team know if he was unable to suit up.

Quite the turnaround from a guy who stood at his locker Monday afternoon with his right knee bent and resting on the scooter (which did not yet have tassels or a horn or snacks at that point) and the Robocop-like boot on his ankle. 

"Honestly, when I told you guys [Monday] 'I'll let you know in a few days,' I did not think in a few days I'd be doing this," he said. "I had a positive mindset — 'It's gonna take me three days. Watch, it's gonna take me three days.' And everyone was just kinda like, 'no way.' I believed I was healthy and I am."

Still, even with the made-for-Hollywood return, the Cubs will wake up Friday morning out of a playoff spot for the first time since April 30. 

Thursday could've been an epic, season-altering comeback, but instead, the Cubs are forced to find a way to move on after another gut-punch.

At least they now have Rizzo, Baez and Kimbrel back in the fold, even if they're not all 100 percent.

"It's just all hands on deck," Rizzo said. "We have to win and I think guys want to win and are pushing themselves. Everyone is banged up this time of the year, so it's just mind over matter, really."

Tom Ricketts thinks Chicago Cubs 'have the best team in our division'

Tom Ricketts thinks Chicago Cubs 'have the best team in our division'

For the first time since 2015, expectations around the Cubs aren’t that high.

Sure, a significant core of the 2016 World Series-winning team is still around but, also for the first time since 2015, the Cubs are coming off a season in which they did not make the playoffs. Plus, the offseason hasn’t inspired much confidence that the team will improve from its 84 wins in 2019.

Despite that, owner Tom Ricketts talked the talk about his team being the best in the NL Central.

“I think we have the best team in our division,” Ricketts said during a press conference from spring training on Monday. “I think we have a really dynamic, exciting new manager. I think the players are going to play very, very hard for David Ross. Barring some kind of crazy injuries, I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs.”

RELATED: Javy Baez on 2019 Cubs: 'We weren't ready' to play

The Cubs’ offseason lacked a notable addition on paper. Here, Ricketts is alluding to Ross being that notable addition. If things got stale under Joe Maddon, perhaps that was a reason for underachievement. Expecting Ross to be the biggest reason for a turnaround is a lot to put on a rookie manager with no coaching experience, but it would be weird if Ricketts didn’t hype up his own guy.

Recently signed Jason Kipnis agrees that the Cubs have the best roster in the division on paper. Kipnis told a story about texting Anthony Rizzo about it when he talked to the media from Mesa on Sunday.

“They got a good core here. I’m well-aware of that. They’re well-aware of that, too,” Kipnis said. “I texted him and called him, and asked him what happened last year because I look at rosters, I look at St. Louis’, I look at all that and I’m like, ‘I still would take your guys' roster.’”

Early projections don’t agree with Ricketts and Kipnis. The Cubs are not favored in the division as projected by USA Today, which put the Cubs at 82 wins, and PECOTA, which has the Cubs averaging 84.5 wins.

Still, Ricketts believes in his group to get to the playoffs.

“Once you’re in the playoffs, there’s no reason to think you won’t go all the way,” Ricketts said. “I think one of the things that people realize about baseball playoffs is it doesn’t matter what your record was during the season. Everyone has a chance to go all the way. So that’s what we have to do. We have to get back on top of our division and I think we have the right guys to do that.”

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Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

MESA, Ariz. –  Two years ago, things were looking bright for Steven Souza. At 28, he was coming off the best season of his career, one where he slashed .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, good for a 121 wRC+. The Rays are certainly never prohibitive favorites in the AL East, but the team was talented and the idea of catching up with the division’s juggernauts was no longer unrealistic. 

Then came the shoulder injury, which delayed the start of his 2018 season until mid-May. After that there was a pec injury, and before he knew it, the year was over and the right fielder had only played in 72 games. Think that’s bad? The following season, now playing for Arizona, Souza slipped while crossing home plate during one of the last games of Spring Training. He tore his ACL, and his season ended before it began. 

“It’s been a grind,” said Souza, who signed a one-year deal with the Cubs in late January. “Coming off the year I had in ‘17, I was excited for the future held for me, and I just kind of ran into a couple injuries that really derailed my last couple seasons. It’s been frustrating, but all that’s behind me, and even though it’s been a grind, I’m excited to get back out here and look forward to the future.” 

Freak injuries derailed what looked to be a promising prime of Souza’s career, and you wouldn’t blame him for harboring his fair share of resentment. It’s impressive, then, to hear him talk about what lasting effect the run of injuries has had on his psyche. 

“Personally, I don’t believe in accidents,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what that reason was, but I know that I’m stronger for it. Mentally, I think if there’s a silver lining, it’s that I got to spend a full year with my son and my newborn daughter. As we all know, in this game, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with our families. So it was a huge blessing and I’m looking forward to moving on from that.” 

Unlike the years he spent playing alongside All-Star center fielders like Kevin Kiermaier and A.J. Pollock, Souza’s outfield positioning will be less set in stone with the Cubs. He’ll get ABs from the corners, but with Schwarber and Heyward not losing their starting positions anytime soon, the quickest road to more at-bats may come in center field. 

"Like I said, wherever I need to fit on the field,” he said. “Whether it’s first base, catcher, shortstop – I mean I’m not very good at those, and there are some really, really good players that are way better than me at those – but I’m just looking to help this team any way I can.” 

Not unlike new teammate Jason Kipnis, the draw of Wrigley was also too much to turn down. He has some moderate success there, too. Over 23 career plate appearances in the Friendly Confines, Souza’s hit .333/.391/.429 with an .820 OPS. It’s a small sample size, but it’s one that has him optimistic that he can prove himself the the North Side’s faithful. 

“I’ll tell you what, that was one of the things that brought me here, the fans and the environment. I’m super pumped,” he said. “And no offense, but I’ve played in Tampa and Arizona and those aren’t the greatest markets in the league. I’ve always enjoyed going to Wrigley, and I’ve had some good success at Wrigley, and I know the Cubs fans bring it every day and I’m looking forward to that.” 

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