Jeff Samardzija watched Starlin Castro make difficult defensive plays look easy on Opening Day and thought about the All-Star shortstop’s ceiling and what it could mean for the Cubs.
Samardzija’s reaction mirrored the outside expectations from the fan-media echo chamber that jumps on Castro’s mistakes, as well as the projections made by the front office that gave him a big contract extension and a coaching staff pushing him to get better every day.
“That dude’s got all the talent in the world,” Samardzija said. “Everything’s right in front of him. He’s young and he can carry this team on a day when everyone else is down. He has that ability and we expect that from him and I think he expects it from himself. And he’s starting to realize he is that guy. You want to see that from him for 162 games.”
Castro has appeared in 204 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the National League, but got a rare night off with Wednesday’s rainout. The Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers will play a day-night doubleheader on July 30 at Wrigley Field.
The night before, Castro had shown what makes him so interesting to watch on a team filled with so many short-time players. As ex-closer Carlos Marmol tries to stop being the focal point of this young season, Castro came up with a huge defensive stop in the eighth inning.
[RELATED: Theo confident he has Cubs on the right path]
Castro dove to his left, bounced up, set his feet and made a strong throw that beat Yuniesky Betancourt by at least two steps. That play saved a run, preserved the tie and put Marmol in position to earn the confidence-building win in a 6-3 comeback victory over the Brewers.
As the angry reactions to Marmol kept popping up on Twitter – and the fans let the ex-closer hear it during the pregame player introductions for Monday’s home opener – it’s worth noting that Castro got booed during his first game at Wrigley Field.
This was three days after Castro put up six RBI in his big-league debut, at the age of 20 years and less than two months, with only 264 games in the minors, none higher than Double-A Tennessee. That swing in May 2010 showed you what it would be like playing on the North Side.
“You don’t think about it,” Castro said. “Just play baseball. Play hard.”
Castro is so naturally gifted that people won’t label him as a grinder, but just look at his consecutive-games streak, which in baseball is second only to Detroit Tigers slugger Prince Fielder (351 entering Wednesday). And don’t underestimate the drive and determination it took to sign with the Cubs as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic and rocket through the system.
As White Sox executive Kenny Williams might say, Castro is Chicago Tough.
There are still puzzling moments, even though manager Dale Sveum didn’t want to go there and blamed it on Tuesday night’s 39-degree weather and wind chill. During a three-run second inning, Castro pulled first baseman Anthony Rizzo off the bag with one throw and sailed another one wide to catcher Welington Castillo.
“One was a spin-o-rama throw to first base and the other was just the ball got a little away from him,” Sveum said. “I’m not concerned about what happened last night at all.”
No one’s saying the Cubs should be concerned, or that Castro should be moved to another position. It’s just that Samardzija laid out the expectations everyone else had on Opening Day.
The return of Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney – who’s expected to get the stitches removed from his left knee on Friday and begin his rehab this weekend at a minor-league affiliate – should help Castro.
“Barney pushes him,” Sveum said. “Once you have that kind of comfort (level) with each other and a routine it makes a big difference.”
Castro’s not going to make excuses, especially when he’s under club control through 2020 and supposed to be making plays whenever this team gets to October.
“It’s tough, man, but you have to put it out of your mind, because it’s Chicago,” Castro said. “You don’t know when it’s cold. You don’t know when it’s hot. Today it’s hot. Tomorrow it will be cold. Tomorrow it will be rain. You never know. You put that out of your mind. Just be ready for whatever.”