Chicago Cubs

Anthony Rizzo pumped up to play for Italy, make name with Cubs

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Anthony Rizzo pumped up to play for Italy, make name with Cubs

This time last year, even the Cubs executives who knew Anthony Rizzo better than anyone else couldn't be certain that they were getting a core player for the next decade.

Rizzo doesn't have to worry about getting traded anytime soon. He won't be going to spring training to try to win a job. Who knows what the Cubs would do without him now? He's supposed to be a leader in the clubhouse, but will leave camp because he felt he couldn't pass up this chance.

Rizzo - whose great-grandfather is from Sicily - spoke with the front office and manager Dale Sveum and got their blessing to play for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.

"They're fully supportive," Rizzo said Wednesday. "People say: 'Oh, the risk factor of getting injured.' But it's just like spring training. I play every game as hard as I can, so it's not different from that standpoint. Obviously, I would love to play for USA. That was my first choice, but they got all the 'monsters.'

"Italy's a great opportunity. I come from a very strong Italian background and to represent (the) whole country is a pretty cool experience."

Rizzo said his teammates will include Jason Grilli, Nick Punto and Chris Denorfia. He's also looking forward to working with Mike Piazza, Italy's hitting coach. Provisional rosters for the World Baseball Classic will be unveiled on Thursday.

The Cubs see a major difference between a position player participating in the event and a pitcher being thrown into a competitive situation that early in camp. Rizzo also felt better about his decision knowing that Italy will play its games - versus Mexico, Canada and Team USA (March 7-9) - in the Phoenix area, not far from the Cubs complex.

"It certainly is something he's taken pride in and we support the WBC as a whole," team president Theo Epstein said. "Now if he pulls a miracle and is gone all month, that might be another story.

"I have a lot of faith in him, but they have a tough group."

Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and scoutingplayer development chief Jason McLeod have a lot invested in their first baseman, the prospect they once drafted for the Boston Red Sox and packaged in the Adrian Gonzalez deal with the San Diego Padres.

Rizzo has accepted the responsibilities that come with being a leader. He has been patient with the media and stuck to the talking points. He didn't let the big-market hype overwhelm him. But he doesn't want to see himself as the face of the franchise.

"I don't look at it like that," Rizzo said. "I have to go out there and produce, and it's got to be that tunnel vision mentality until I actually really do make a name for myself.

"I've done a little bit, but Alfonso Soriano's made a name. He's done it every single year. The superstars in the game have done it. I'm just coming up and I want to continue to work hard every day, (be) myself and just let it go from there."

The Cubs are eager to measure The Rizzo Effect - how his 15 homers and 48 RBI in 87 games last year will translate across an entire season. He wants to win a Gold Glove playing alongside second baseman Darwin Barney and shortstop Starlin Castro. It will be a little easier going into spring training knowing that he won't have to look over his shoulder, but he's vowed to keep the same mentality.

"I still want to go in and prove that I can be elite," Rizzo said.

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”