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.

Phillies swept out of Wrigley with Cubs youth movement that includes Ben Zobrist

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Phillies swept out of Wrigley with Cubs youth movement that includes Ben Zobrist

Joe Maddon laughed when a reporter mentioned the sense of renewal the older Cubs players are feeling now after signing here as free agents, enjoying life on a young team with the best record in baseball and the vibrant atmosphere in Wrigleyville.

“They’ve been born again?” Maddon said. “That’s because they’re around Zobrist.”

Maddon can smirk because he knows Ben Zobrist’s journey to the big leagues as well as anyone after managing the Tampa Bay Rays for nine seasons. Zobrist, the son of a minister, grew up in downstate Illinois, played at Olivet Nazarene University and helps organize chapel services for his teammates.  

But even Maddon hasn’t seen Zobrist play at a higher level than right now, watching this hot streak continue during Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,575 at Wrigley Field. 

Zobrist launched a three-run homer off Vince Velasquez, the talented 23-year-old right-hander who began the day with a 2.75 ERA, a 16-strikeout, complete-game shutout on his resume and a prominent spot in Philadelphia’s rebuilding plan.

That third-inning shot flew out toward the right-field bleachers, bouncing into and out of the basket, extending Zobrist’s hitting streak to 15 games, giving him 34 consecutive starts where he’s reached base safely and leading to a three-game sweep of the Phillies (26-24).  

Zobrist needed to spend parts of three years with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate before finally establishing himself as an everyday player for the Rays during his age-28/All-Star season in 2009. 

Now Zobrist is getting “Benjamin Button” references for his age-reversing start to this season.  

“Do I look younger?” said Zobrist, who turned 35 last week. “It’s a matter of just continuing to grow and mature as a hitter. You got to keep doing that. No matter how old you are, you’ve never arrived in this game. This game humbles you quick and you got to try to stay on top of it.”  

That’s why the Cubs wanted Zobrist’s switch-hitting presence in the middle of their lineup, making the Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren trade with the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and signing the game’s premier super-utility guy to a four-year, $56 million contract.

“I’m just glad he’s on my side now,” said Jon Lester, who regularly faced Zobrist while pitching for the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. “When you have guys that can not only hit for power, but can extend at-bats, it makes it very difficult.

“This guy doesn’t strike out a lot. He walks a ton. It seems like he’s always putting the ball in play. (We) have a guy that can switch-hit and do (all those things) in different parts of the order. 

“It just makes our lineup that much longer. It makes the pitcher work even harder.” 

Zobrist probably won’t win the National League batting title – he’s now hitting .351 –  and he can’t keep getting on base around 45 percent of the time. But the Cubs have clearly felt the effects from his age-defying start.   
 
“Probably the best I’ve ever had, to be honest,” Zobrist said. “I’ve had some good stretches where I got a lot of hits. But as far as feeling comfortable, seeing the ball, putting good swings on the ball, this is probably the best it’s been for any three-, four-week stretch of time.

“You ride it out as long as you can.”

John Lackey has been exactly what Cubs needed

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John Lackey has been exactly what Cubs needed

Admit it, Cubs fans, part of you didn’t like the John Lackey deal, not after watching him pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals and hearing about his reputation with the Boston Red Sox. 

Or at least Cubs Twitter didn’t automatically hail this as another genius move for Theo Epstein’s front office when Lackey’s two-year, $32 million agreement leaked before the winter meetings even started at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. 

But Lackey has been exactly what the Cubs needed, a snarling personality on the mound and a stabilizing presence in the middle of their rotation. Plus that big-game experience should come in handy for a team that will wake up on Memorial Day with the best record in baseball (34-14). 

Lackey shut down the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, throwing seven innings in a 7-2 victory that completed a three-game sweep of a big-market team in the early stages of a full-scale rebuild. 

There really wasn’t much suspense for the holiday-weekend crowd of 41,575. Lackey (5-2, 3.16 ERA) had a seven-run lead with two outs in the seventh inning when he gave up his first and only run – a homer to Tyler Goeddel – and that now makes him 8-for-10 in quality starts in a Cubs uniform. 

Just look at how much the Cardinals have missed Lackey’s ability to eat up innings, beginning Sunday with a 4.48 rotation ERA that ranked 11th out of the National League’s 15 teams and now falling 9.5 games behind the Cubs in the division. 

White Sox bullpen falters again as Royals complete sweep

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White Sox bullpen falters again as Royals complete sweep

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Welcome to Kansas City, where all the impossibly bad things that could happen to the White Sox seem to materialize.

The White Sox bullpen coughed up a lead for a third consecutive game on Sunday afternoon and a miserable losing streak reached six games with a 5-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals in front of 36,624 at Kauffman Stadium.

Chris Sale was in line for his 10th win in 11 tries until the Royals rallied for three eighth-inning runs against Nate Jones and Matt Albers.

Instead of achieving what would have been a defining sweep of Kansas City, the White Sox were swept and head to New York with no answers on how to rediscover the winning ways that led them to victories in 23 of their first 33 games. The bullpen allowed 14 runs during the three-game sweep.

Just as they had on the previous two days, Kansas City’s bats woke up late Sunday.

After scoring six times in their final three at-bats on Friday and an improbable seven more in a ninth-inning rally on Saturday, they immediately put pressure on Jones, who allowed a run Friday.

Trailing by two, Lorenzo Cain brought the crowd to life with an opposite-field solo homer on a 3-2 pitch from Jones, a booming shot to make it 4-3. Eric Hosmer then scooted a 2-2 slider down the left-field line for a double. Jones walked Kendrys Morales and Paulo Orlando singled to load the bases. Brett Eibner walked to force in the tying run and Cheslor Cuthbert’s infield single off Albers put the Royals ahead.

Another stunning failure by the bullpen snuffed out a stopper-esque start by Chris Sale, who had the White Sox in position to end their streak.

Sale’s defense did its part to help out early.

What could have been a disastrous first inning ended with a spectacular double play by Austin Jackson. Jackson — who later exited the game with an undisclosed injury — raced back to make an over-the-head grab to rob Morales and then fired a strike to Tyler Saladino, whose perfect relay throw to first doubled off Hosmer. Earlier in the inning, Saladino ranged far to his left and fired to first to retire Alcides Escobar.

Melky Cabrera also turned in a gem in the second inning, throwing out Eibner as he tried to stretch a single into a double. Finally, Adam Eaton made his glove’s presence felt with a sliding grab to rob Whit Merrifield to end the third.

Those contributions helped Sale navigate some difficult waters against a team that has challenged him the past few seasons. Despite a 2.84 career ERA, Sale entered the start with a 7-9 mark against the Royals. He certainly looked as if he were headed for a 10th defeat in the first inning when Merrifield singled and the Royals capitalized on a dropped pop up by Jose Abreu as he slammed into the dugout railing. With new life, Cain ripped the next Sale pitch to deep center for an RBI double and he scored on Hosmer’s RBI single to make it 2-0.

The team’s most consistent force all season, Sale pitched out of big jams in the fourth and seventh innings, the latter coming with him at the 115-pitch mark.

Whereas some of his rotation mates have struggled, the lineup has experienced slumbers and the bullpen has had issues for the past three weeks, Sale has continued to deliver consistency in all but one start.

Sale allowed two earned runs and seven hits with two walks and seven strikeouts in seven innings. He threw strikes on 80 of 118 pitches.

Though the White Sox offense didn’t get a ton of early results, they made Edinson Volquez work.

The Sox pushed through for a second-inning run on three straight singles by Abreu, Brett Lawrie and Dioner Navarro.

Trailing 2-1 in the fifth, Avisail Garcia sparked a go-ahead rally with a one-out walk. Saladino doubled to put two in scoring position. Eaton tied it with an RBI groundout and Jackson’s two-out single put the White Sox up by a run. Jackson’s seventh-inning, bases-loaded sac fly gave Sale and the White Sox breathing room as he made it 4-2. Had it not been for a spectacular diving grab by Orlando, Jackson may have had extra bases.