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.

Cubs World Series Baby-Boom in full swing

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USA TODAY

Cubs World Series Baby-Boom in full swing

Technically... the Chicago Cubs became world champions on Nov. 3, 2016 at 12:47 a.m. 

Approximately... that was nine months ago.

Theoretically... there should be a lot of Anthony's and Kris's being born in Chicago right about now. 

Now, that last part may be a bit of a stretch, but what is not a stretch is the arrival of what the Cubs organization are calling 'World Championship Babies', and what a ring that has to it. 

This upswing in births has even garnered national attention, shown below

In a press release on Monday, the Cubs celebrated this correlation by announcing that babies born around now would receive membership to the 'Newborn Fan Club' as well as a Cubs “Rookie of the Year” onesie, Cubs pinstripe beanie cap, custom-made birth certificate and personalized Wrigley Field Marquee photo.

This mass membership growth will take place today, Wed., July 26 at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, 836 W. Wellington Ave, Chicago, Ill.

Is Schwar-Bombs an acceptable first name?

How Addison Russell saved the Cubs' season...for now

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USA TODAY

How Addison Russell saved the Cubs' season...for now

As the Cubs head to the South Side Wednesday night for Game 3 of Crosstown, they sit one-half game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a season-high five games above .500.

But things could've been a lot different if not for Addison Russell.

The "what-if" game is a popular one among sports fans, especially around the water cooler or in the local bar. 

Joe Maddon plays that game only on rare occasions and while he didn't fully head down that path this past weekend, he did acknowledge the important role Russell and Willson Contreras have played in saving the Cubs' season.

Maddon's squad has burst out to a 9-2 start to the second half of 2017. And when asked about the team's 6-0 road trip coming out of the break, Maddon pointed to Russell's game-winning homer in the ninth inning of the first game in Baltimore — the game that started this hot stretch — and Contreras' game-saving block on a ball in the dirt in the ninth inning of the first game in Atlanta.

"That first night still, giving up that lead and then that home run by Addy, that was a real seminal moment potentially for the entire season," Maddon said. "I talked about it in Atlanta, the block by Contreras. Just two significant plays that have occurred on that recent trip.

"That could've turned that into a 4-2 trip as opposed to a 6-0 trip. Addy's homer and that block by Willson. Check out that block from Willson. It was a breaking ball from [closer Wade Davis] and it wasn't going good. It was not going good at that moment. Those are two plays on that trip that really stood out to me."

The Russell homer was key because the Cubs had burst out of the break — with freshly-acquired pitcher Jose Quintana in tow — with an 8-0 lead after the top of the third inning, but Mike Montgomery and the Cubs bullpen had allowed the Orioles back into the game. After Koji Uehara served up the tying home run in the bottom of the eighth, Russell lined a one-out shot over the left-centerfield fence off Brad Brach in the top of the ninth.

In Atlanta, Contreras' block came with the tying run on third base as Davis eventually secured the nail-biting save in a 4-3 Cubs victory.

Had the Cubs blown the lead in either game, it would've been a tough pill to swallow mentally for a team that struggled to a 43-45 record in the first half. Of course, Contreras' red-hot bat (.341 AVG, 1.133 OPS, 5 HR, 15 RBI since the Break) has helped those victories hold up.

Everybody had been looking for that "seminal moment" around the Cubs for the entire first half of the season. There are still more than two months left in the season, but if the Cubs truly have turned the corner, maybe it did all start on the field with Russell's homer.

"When the manager says at a certain point, the season completely turned on a good note for the team and you're part of that, that's a huge compliment, especially coming from Joe Maddon," Russell said. "Joe has a pretty good reason behind everything that he says. In that situation, just trying to put the barrel on the ball. 

"Get in position to have the other guys knock me in and get on base. That's kinda my goal. It's a huge complimient that he said that. I'm gonna have to ask him a little more about that."

While the Cubs' season may have turned around on Russell's shot to left center on July 14, he had actually started his own personal turnaround more than a month prior.

Since June 11, Russell has hit .291 with an .888 OPS in 35 games, collected 17 extra-base hits (11 doubles, six homers) and 15 RBI.

After a trying couple of months to start 2017 — both on a personal and professional level — Russell's season line looks very similar to last year's total. He has the same batting average (.238) and his slugging percentage is only two points off (.415 compared to .417 last season). The on-base percentage is lower (.304 compared to .321 in 2016) as Russell's walk rate is down, but the 23-year-old shortstop is proving that his slow start is in the past.

The confidence of a big, possibly season-saving home run could help give him a boost, as well.

"[Maddon] kind of gets a sense of how I go about my business and how I go about my game in general," Russell said. "Maybe he saw something that was ready to come out and just go with that the rest of the season."