Ian Happ

Anthony Rizzo's injury presents nightmare scenario for Cubs

Anthony Rizzo's injury presents nightmare scenario for Cubs

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.

Addison Russell leaves Cubs game early after hit in head with pitch; will undergo concussion evaluation

Addison Russell leaves Cubs game early after hit in head with pitch; will undergo concussion evaluation

MILWAUKEE — When it rains, it pours for the Cubs, apparently.

A team that's already dealing with the loss of Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and closer Craig Kimbrel had to play most of Sunday's 8-5 loss to the Brewers without Addison Russell.

Russell took a 94 mph fastball to the face in the top of the third inning;

He remained on the ground for several minutes and was checked over by the medical staffs from both teams, but ultimately remained in the game after running a couple sprints down the right-field line. 

Russell immediately stole second on the first pitch after the delay and then came around to score a few pitches later on David Bote's single. But after the offensive inning, it was Bote heading out to shortstop with Ian Happ taking over at third base and Russell out of the game.

After the game, the Cubs announced that Russell has a nasal bruise and that he's being evaluated for a possible concussion.

After it was announced Baez would miss the next few weeks with a broken thumb, Joe Maddon expected Russell to play almost every inning at shortstop down the stretch, with Bote as the backup.

Beyond that, the Cubs' shortstop depth chart is unknown, but Maddon mentioned Ben Zobrist as a possibility. Zobrist has played 235 big-league games at shortstop, but has only appeared there six times in four years for the Cubs, totaling 13 innings.

At 38 and after missing four months on personal leave, it would be surprising if the Cubs stuck with Zobrist for any length of time at shortstop. After him, Happ figures to be in the mix, though Tony Kemp and Daniel Descalso were taking grounders at the position prior to Saturday's game.

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Ben Zobrist wasted no time showing how he can impact the Cubs lineup

Ben Zobrist wasted no time showing how he can impact the Cubs lineup

Tuesday night at Wrigley Field was the culmination of a storyline four months in the making: Ben Zobrist returning to man the leadoff spot in the Cubs order.

He didn't wait long to announce his presence in the 6-1 victory, working the count full in each of his first two plate appearances, drawing a walk the second time. He also bunted for a hit to start a rally, stirring up memories of when he did the same thing in L.A. in the 2016 NLCS.

"It's nice to see that at-bat at the top of the batting order — the patience and the accepting of the walk, etc.," Joe Maddon said. "He just sets a great example. That's the at-bat he works. There are times where you'll think, 'Gosh, Zo's in a real slump,' but you look up and he's on base two times a night. And he was tonight. That's just who he is."

The 38-year-old veteran made 14 starts at the top of the lineup before he went on personal leave in early-May and in those games, he posted a .300 batting average and .373 on-base percentage. 

The rest of the Cubs leadoff hitters have a combined .191 average and .266 OBP in 571 plate appearances this season.

As a team (including Zobrist's numbers), the Cubs entered play Tuesday night with far and away the worst OBP out of the top spot — .282, a full 17 points below the Detroit Tigers, who have the worst offense and record in baseball.

It's no wonder everybody's been waiting for Zobrist to come back.

"Believe me, we've missed him a lot this year," Maddon said the day before Zobrist returned. "It's been pretty obvious. [Patience] is the one thing he's always been able to do for any batting order. Even when he's not hitting, he's always going to be on base at least one, maybe two times a game just based on his eye."

Despite not playing for so long, Maddon had no qualms about throwing Zobrist right back into the fire and leading him off in his first start. Maddon felt confident leaning on the veteran's batting eye and ability to set a good example for the rest of the lineup with his professional approach.

Zobrist was also part of the leadoff equation last season, making 27 starts in the spot with a .371 OBP and .810 OPS. But he hit all over the lineup because the 2018 Cubs didn't have as much trouble getting production from their leadoff hitters — they finished second in MLB with a .366 OBP atop the order, behind only the 108-win Boston Red Sox.

This season, there has been no right mix.

Kyle Schwarber has spent more time than any other Cub in the top spot this year and while he hit for power, he posted just a .304 OBP in 56 games (253 plate appearances). 

Jason Heyward has been the leadoff man lately, but he's sporting just a .554 OPS in those 32 games (147 plate appearances) and is hitless in his last 28 at-bats.

Albert Almora Jr. (14 games) and Daniel Descalso (11 games) have also seen extended time up there as Maddon has tried to mix-and-match with just about everybody else at one point or another — Robel Garcia, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Ian Happ, Tony Kemp, Willson Contreras.

"Last year, it was a source of conversation and we didn't have a typical guy," Maddon said. "But if you looked at our numbers at the end of the year, they were actually pretty good. I don't think we're rivaling that moment yet this year. It is nice when the guy on top is definitely stirring it up a little bit. 

"You can't underestimate when you get guys on at the top that are consistently on base, what that does for the rest of the group."

Of course, the leadoff spot has been a source of constant debate surrounding this team since Dexter Fowler left following the 2016 championship season. 

In July, Maddon asked the veteran Heyward to step up and try to fill the role and has commended the way he embraced the role, even if the results weren't always there. When he was first moved into the leadoff spot, Heyward asked his manager to be patient with him up there, but the Cubs can't afford to be too patient right now with a 3.0-game deficit in the NL Central standings and only 24 games left to play after Tuesday.

Heyward has hit just .147 with a .252 OBP in the top spot, but the Cubs are 22-10 when he leads off.

"He's been great," Maddon said of Heyward, while also acknowledging Zobrist presents the team with different options in lineup construction. "He understands and he's battled really hard and our record with him hitting leadoff has been pretty darn good. Listen, he's such an important part of us winning. 

"[Moving him to leadoff] was out of necessity as much as anything else and he knew that, but I have so much respect for him as a player. His intent is to play the game properly every day and win. That's his intent. It's not about him so much. It's about everything else, and that's what I really appreciate about him."

Zobrist won't play every day, but when he does, expect to see a lot of him in the leadoff spot as the Cubs work to optimize their lineup in search of some offensive consistency. 

"My body feels pretty good right now," he said. "I'm a little fatigued, probably just the mental fatigue of getting back into it. But we got an off-day tomorrow and I'll feel pretty good on Thursday is my guess. I feel great physically, still kinda getting into the swing of routine mentally."

Asked about his workload down the stretch, he joked it should be obvious when he'll need a break:

"I think probably if I get fatigued, it'll probably show in the numbers, so they'll know when to sit me."

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