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.
"It's not different than [Christian] Yelich lost for the Brewers," Joe Maddon said. "Stuff happens man. You just gotta keep moving it forward. We'll wait and see how it plays out. There's a potential that it's not gonna be that long. We'll just remain optimistic and see what they say tomorrow."
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 en route to a 16-6 victory.
Kris Bryant liked the way the Cubs responded to the tough moment and said the concern for Rizzo from the entire stadium was palpable.
"It was really weird, standing out there after it happened, everybody was just kind of quiet," Bryant said. "I've never really experienced that here. That just shows how much everybody loves him and why he's so important here.
"I was standing there next to him and I was like, I've never seen him like this. It was just one of those things that you never wanna see that. And then at third base right after it happened, fans very upset. ... Anthony truly wanted us to come together after that and we really did for him."
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.
"Listen, from the fan's perspective, it is what it is," Maddon said. "You're gonna be devastated by that. We are, too, to a certain extent. Then you gotta move it forward, man. We're missing Javy [Baez] right now, we missed [Willson] Contreras for a large part of the season, KB's been in and out, [Ben] Zobrist was not even here. We're used to this, in a sense. And the depth has got to pick us up."
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 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 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.