Cubs believe Rizzo will lead by example

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Cubs believe Rizzo will lead by example

Anthony Rizzo doesnt want to hear that this is his team now.

The media and the marketing department havent driven this idea alone. Last winter Theo Epsteins front office told Cubs fans they were getting someone mature beyond his years.

Manager Dale Sveum recognized those qualities as far back as spring training and knew he would become an important piece to the clubhouse puzzle. Veteran utility guy Jeff Baker said so last weekend after he was traded to the Detroit Tigers.

The relaunched version of the Cubs returned to the North Side on Thursday night, with almost 33 percent of the schedule left to find out what theyve got. Dusty Baker who has never known this market to be very patient watched his first-place Cincinnati Reds get beat 5-3.

When Rizzo was on the verge of being promoted from Triple-A Iowa, a team official tried to downplay all the hype and observed: Hes not (bleeping) Babe Ruth. But the Cubs are going to put a lot on his shoulders. Just dont expect any Knute Rockne speeches.

When people say stepping up and being a leader, its not like Im going to get (up) on a stool, Rizzo said. Its just kind of doing it by example. You get those big hits, which are always nice, but its about showing up to the field every day and preparing hard and other guys see that. Players see you running balls out hard and they see you working hard. Thats my definition of being a leader.

Rizzo again found himself in the middle of the action with an RBI single in the first inning. He negated his leadoff double in the fourth when he ran to third base on a groundball to short and got thrown out in a 6-3-5 double play, the kind of aggressive mistake the Cubs (44-66) will live with for now.

Rizzo took out catcher Devin Mesoraco with a hard slide on Starlin Castros game-tying, two-run double off the wall in the sixth inning. He worked an eight-pitch walk against Sean Marshall in the eighth before Alfonso Soriano crushed the game-winning, two-run homer toward the batters eye in center.

Rizzo, who turned 23 on Wednesday, is one of 12 players who werent on the Opening Day roster. Between Kerry Woods retirement and the flurry of deadline deals, the Cubs lost roughly five decades of major-league service time.

Cubs people have long predicted that Brett Jackson will become the most popular dude in Wrigleyville, a guy who loves to play hard and get his uniform dirty and doesnt mind the cameras.

Fair or not, Jacksons strikeouts are going to become a daily watch (nine in 16 plate appearances), and Rizzo knows what that scrutiny is like after hitting .141 with one home run in 49 games with the San Diego Padres last season.

Its tough because everyone has their opinion, Rizzo said. Its unfair to base everything just on results. Bretts a hard worker. He does everything he can. Hes going to get better. If he hits, he hits. If he doesnt, he doesnt. But he brings the same approach to the field every day. Thats the biggest thing.

When the Cubs returned to Petco Park this week, Rizzo stood in the visiting dugout with the San Diego media and refused to make excuses.

The ballpark could have been a T-ball field and I wouldnt have a hit a ball, Rizzo said. I wasnt hitting the fastball, or pretty much anything.

Rizzo kept most of his answers boring and didnt gloat about his numbers (.301 average, nine homers, 24 RBIs in 37 games). When asked to identify the problem, he said: Probably between my ears.

Remember that Cubs executives saw Rizzos monster numbers in the Pacific Coast League and reminded everyone that it was a mistake to rush him last season. They had to wait until he had checked off all the boxes (while pushing back free agency by a year). So its convenient to say now, but there is a roadmap for Jackson to follow this winter.

General manager Jed Hoyer who brought Rizzo to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and got him back in the Andrew Cashner trade recalled an exit meeting at the end of last season.

(Manager) Bud Black (and I) sat down and said: Hey, until you can catch up with a mid-90s fastball and above, youre going to struggle in the big leagues. You need to shorten your swing. You need to level your swing out.

I give him a lot of credit. We had a hard conversation with him and he made those adjustments.

Vindicated is too strong (a word for us). Its six weeks. Hes going to have ups and downs like any young player, but Im really happy for him.

Rizzo has already sidestepped the media blitz in two cities. He keeps his head down and will stand in front of his locker to face questions. He has developed a quiet routine. The Cubs will expect him to be initiating hard conversations and running that clubhouse for years to come.

Breaking down the Bears' 2016 draft class on 'Draft Central'

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Breaking down the Bears' 2016 draft class on 'Draft Central'

With the 2016 NFL Draft in the books, the 2016 Bears are coming into focus.

Sunday night, CSN broke down the weekend that was — a busy one for the Bears, featuring not just the draft but also the addition of a backup quarterback and the subtraction of veterans Matt Slauson and Antrel Rolle.

So where do the Bears stand? Click on the links below to hear from Chris Boden, Jim Miller, Dave Wannstedt and Hub Arkush as they recap the draft and the rest of the Bears' offseason.

— Draft Central: Initial impressions of Bears' draft class

— Draft Central: Scouting first-round pick Leonard Floyd

— Draft Central: Bears move around in Round 2

— Draft Central: A look at the Bears' post-draft depth chart

— Draft Central: Bears release Matt Slauson, Antrel Rolle

— Draft Central: Bears add Brian Hoyer as Jay Cutler backup

Five things we learned about the Cubs in the first month of 2016

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Five things we learned about the Cubs in the first month of 2016

Addison Russell strolled out of the Cubs locker room wearing a baggy pinstriped suit with a smile plastered across his face.

He paused for a second and looked back to see Kris Bryant in his American flag suit (complete with American flag shoes) and the rest of his teammates and coaches following suit.

Russell smiled wider and continued the march toward the team bus to the airport.

This was only hours after the sophomore shortstop committed the costly error that led to the worst team in baseball (Atlanta Braves) notching a series split with the best team in the game at Wrigley Field.

Forget the loss. Move on.

Yeah, the Cubs are feeling good about themselves right now.

As they should.

The Cubs ended April with the best record in baseball (17-5), living up to the hype they created after a wild offseason and throughout a wacky spring training.

Things would have been so much difficult if the Cubs had not gotten off to a hot start in a city that watched the Bulls crash and burn and miss the playoffs while the Blackhawks were knocked out in the first round.

Imagine how the city and its sports fans would have responded if the red-hot White Sox was the only baseball team looking like a contender 1/6 of the way through the season.

As the Cubs face their toughest test of the season to date with seven straight games against two of the best teams in the league (Pirates, Nationals), let's look back at the five biggest takeaways from the campaign to date:

1. Jake Arrieta has picked up right where he left off.

Everybody wanted to know what Arrieta would do as an encore to follow up his 2015 Cy Young season in which he put up the best second half the game has ever seen.

How about 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP and a no-hitter? It's crazy to think Arrieta could be better than he was last season, but he's making it true with each outing. 

At the very least, Arrieta has picked up right where he left off and might well be the best pitcher in the game (though Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale would surely have something to say about that).

2. The pitching staff has carried the Cubs.

Even beyond Arrieta, the Cubs pitching staff as a whole has been fantastic. Only the Washington Nationals have a better team ERA entering play Monday. Cubs pitchers also have a batting average against of under .200, tops in the big leagues.

It helps when Arrieta, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel have combined to allow just 13 earned runs in 94 1/3 innings. John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks haven't been bad, either, as the rotation has recorded 18 quality starts in 23 tries.

The back end of the bullpen has been clicking, too, as Hector Rondon allowed his first run of the season Sunday, while Adam Warren still hasn't given up an earned run in eight innings and Pedro Strop is locked in (2.89 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 13 Ks in 9 1/3 innings).

The Cubs pitching staff has also gotten it done at the plate, driving in eight runs on 10 hits.

"This month was the pitcher," Bryant said. "They were unbelievable and they hit pretty good, too, so they kinda picked themselves up at times. ... The pitchers have carried us the whole month."

3. This team is much improved defensively.

Theo Epstein's front office identified the weaknesses of last year's team that ran into the brick wall that was the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series and one of the main issues was defense — particularly outfield defense.

Gold Glover Jason Heyward's defense has been as good as advertised, with the big free agent acquisition gunning down baserunners and diving all over the outfield.

Dexter Fowler has earned positive grades defensively, too, as the Cubs forced him to play a little deeper in center field.

Bryant has looked solid in left field and at third base, and Ben Zobrist's steady glove at second has been a welcome addition in an infield that already boasts elite defenders in Russell and Anthony Rizzo.

"Defensively, we've caught the ball," Joe Maddon said. "We've played catch well. Everybody's talking about the offense, but primarily, it's been pitching and the defense that's set this whole thing up."

4. This team doesn't wilt in the face of adversity.

The Cubs had remarkably good luck on the injury front in 2015, but it took until only the second inning of the third game in 2016 for the first major blow.

Kyle Schwarber is lost for the season, yet the Cubs had just one letdown game after that news before righting the ship and marching forward without "Fast Hulk" in the lineup.

If somebody predicted the Cubs would be 17-5 in the first month of the season without Schwarber even collecting a hit, they would've been laughed off the internet.

Maddon and his coaching staff have seen just about everything there is to see in this game, and they have a stable of veterans like David Ross, Lester, Lackey and Zobrist who know what it takes to rise above adversity and keep everybody pulling on the same rope.

5. The Cubs haven't reached their peak.

Everybody is talking about a Cubs offense that ended the weekend with the second-most runs scored in baseball.

But the reality is, this lineup really hasn't hit its groove yet, scoring most of their runs with timely hitting and an insanely patient approach that keeps the conga line moving on the basepaths.

Yet Zobrist, Rizzo, Russell, Heyward, Miguel Montero and Jorge Soler are all hitting .250 or below, and Schwarber notched just four at-bats before tragedy struck.

Imagine what this offense will do when everything gets clicking and the weather starts to warm up.

"A lot of us are just getting going," Bryant said. "It'll be fun to see when things are clicking when the pitching's going good and the hitting's going good."

That feeling is mutual around the clubhouse.

"We have some work to do in general," Heyward said. "We're not hitting on all cylinders right now. We're not clicking consistently."

So does that mean the Cubs are expecting months where they finish with a better record than April's 17-5?

"I'd love to just keep doing that every month," Maddon said. "I'd be happy with that. We've played pretty well this entire month. It's hard to knock our guys right now.

"Offensively, defensively, pitching — the baserunning's been really good. To be able to sustain all those components would be great. I think you're gonna see guys actually hit better. A lot of our offense has been just based on some really good at-bats, some timely hitting.

"But just to purely go out there and just literally knock the cover off the ball, we haven't done that yet. So I think there's an offensive push that we're capable of.

"You just look at the numbers in general, and there are guys that are capable of more, numerically speaking. You probably will see more come from the offense."

Preview: Cubs, Pirates do battle Monday night on CSN

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Preview: Cubs, Pirates do battle Monday night on CSN

The Cubs take on the Pirates on Monday night, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies live from Pittsburgh for first pitch at 6 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today's starting pitching matchup: Jason Hammel (3-0, 0.75 ERA) vs. Gerrit Cole (2-2, 2.78 ERA)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you're ready for the action.

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