Cubs challenging Castro to step up his game

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Cubs challenging Castro to step up his game

MESA, Ariz. Starlin Castro says hes ready to focus on baseball.

Castro didnt hide behind an interpreter when he reported to camp and addressed the sexual assault allegations that surfaced during the offseason (though he also didnt offer much substance either).

Cubs executives are glad their 21-year-old All-Star shortstop is here, and have directed everything toward Castros representatives, whove vehemently denied the claims.

So underneath the Arizona sunshine, the Cubs will push Castro to get better, and realize his almost unlimited potential.

Manager Dale Sveum has watched Castro closely during the teams first three workouts at Fitch Park. An old shortstop, Sveum has stressed gaining ground when the ball is hit, so your feet create momentum and you have a shorter throw.

Sveum has also noticed that Castro picks up the target late and tends to move his shoulders out of line, forcing too many throws that are too high or in the dirt.

I can relate to Castro, Sveum said Sunday. When I was young, I made a lot of errors. Some of the things Im telling him are some of the same things I (heard). They happen to a lot of people. My best friend Robin Yount made 80 errors his first two years in the big leagues. He turned out to be a pretty good defensive player. The will has to be there to do it. Thats the key.

Yount actually had 75 errors combined in his age-19 and age-20 seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, but whos counting? He has a Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Castro has similar ambitions, but for now the Cubs are focused on overall team defense. Last season Castro committed 29 of the teams 134 errors, which led the majors by a wide margin. But they were defensively poor by almost any metric or eye test.

Its not just errors that come into play either, Sveum said. Its the awareness of whats going on, whos on the mound, where to play, the score of the game, the depth when theres two outs. These are all the things were talking about and getting ironed out to where we can nullify a lot of hits (opponents) got last year. Defense is everything.

Already, Castro is an offensive force. He led the National League with 207 hits last year. Since 1900, only four players have had more hits in a season at age 21 or younger. Two were Alex Rodriguez and Ty Cobb.

Theo Epsteins front office wants players that grind out at-bats. The Boston Red Sox would play games that lasted four hours and play deep into October. Last season Castro hit .307 with a .341 on-base percentage (the major-league average was .320) and walked only 35 times in more than 700 plate appearances.

The important thing to remember with Starlin is age, Epstein said. If he were 27 years old and had that kind of on-base percentage with the type of incredible offensive ability that he has, I would say thats a problem. If he hadnt learned to fully develop as a hitter: He wasnt a smart hitter. He wasnt disciplined. He wasnt taking advantage of the natural gifts that he has

(But) doing what he did at 21 years old in the big leagues projects extraordinarily well in the future, because its hard to teach (his) natural ability. Its almost impossible.

(Someone) tries to throw a good breaking ball, he sees it right out of the hand and hes on it. The ability (to) barrel up pitches in every part of the strike zone and drive them to the outfield: You cant teach that.

What hitters do learn as they mature is to be smarter, to figure out how pitchers are trying to get them out (and) recognize that they dont need to do the pitchers any favors and expand the strike zone. They end up not only with walks, but pitches they can drive out of the ballpark.

The education of Castro will continue, and the Cubs may still have their face of the franchise.

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

At the end of the day, a loss means essentially nothing for the Cubs right now.

But the Cubs also certainly don't want to hand games to their division rival as the St. Louis Cardinals make a run at the National League wild card spots.

After the Cubs clinched homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs with the Washington Nationals' loss Friday night, they had no answer for the Cardinals in a 10-4 loss in front of 40,785 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon on national TV.

A few disturbing trends popped their heads above ground for the Cubs again Saturday, including the offense's struggles at manufacturing runs, Jason Hammel getting shelled and some bullpen woes.

The Cubs had no trouble putting runners on base against Cardinals phenom Alex Reyes, but they had a tough time plating those guys, cashing in only once with a runner on third base in six tries over the first four innings.

In two of those spots, a Cubs hitter came up with only one out, but failed to bring the run home as Addison Russell struck out in the first inning and Kris Bryant popped out to shallow left in the second.

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Hammel recorded only seven outs and was tagged for six runs on six hits and a walk, watching his season ERA rise nearly 30 points to 3.83. The veteran right-hander fell to 15-10 as he attempts to make a push for one of the Cubs' final postseason roster spots.

"Honestly, I would love to be a part of [the playoff roster], as the rest of the guys on the team would love to," Hammel said. "I know there's only a certain amount of spots, so if I'm handed the ball, I'll be ready. That's the way I'm gonna view it.

"Obviously you wanna be a part of something special like that, but I think everybody here has already been a part of something special to get to this point. We're all very proud. We still got eight regular season ballgames left to build some momentum. Whether I'm on the roster or not, I'm still gonna enjoy it."

Hammel was also clearly on the wrong end of some bad luck Saturday, as the four runs he allowed in the first came via a check swing and a couple hits just out of the reach of his fielders. 

Joe Maddon won't put too much stock into one rough start in late September.

"I'm not too worried about a good or bad outing right now. I'm not," he said. "Pretty much, you know who the guy is. You know if the guy's go this stuff going on or if he doesn't. ... The greater body of work matters."

Setup man Hector Rondon struggled in his appearance, needing 26 pitches to notch just one out, giving up three runs on three hits and a walk before handing the ball off to Felix Pena.

Of course, it's also just one game and one loss for a team with 98 victories and hopes of the World Series.

Rondon had been nearly unhittable since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago and the Cubs offense had been efficient and relentless in the past four games after Maddon's meeting with the hitters earlier in the week.

Maddon also used the blowout to get regulars like Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Russell out of the lineup to help keep them fresh for October.

After the game, Maddon chose to look on the bright side.

"Our starter had a tough day today; that's it. Otherwise we did some nice things," he said, referencing the solid offensive days from Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. "We had chances to score runs - runners on third, less than two outs - and we didn't fulfill that.

"We made their starter throw 115 pitches in five innings; I think that's a positive."

The Cubs will close out their season series with the Cardinals on another nationally-televised showdown Sunday night between Jon Lester and St. Louis ace Carlos Martinez.

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Cubs: Miguel Montero plays 'psychologist' to get the most out of Jake Arrieta

Lost amid the craziness of Friday's game and David Ross' emotional sendoff was Miguel Montero locking up a spot on the Cubs' postseason roster.

It's not official, of course. 

The Cubs don't have to get their National League Division Series 25-man roster until the morning of Oct. 7, Game 1.

But Montero proved his value to the Cubs, even in an 0-for-3 effort offensively.

The veteran catcher has struggled to find consistency at the plate this season, but his work behind the plate has proven invaluable, especially with reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

Montero helped get Arrieta in rhythm Friday for a dominant performance - 10 strikeouts across seven shutout innings.

It was the first time the two had worked together in a battery since Aug. 12, with Willson Contreras catching Arrieta five times and Ross behind the dish once in that span.

"Quite frankly, I'm not gonna lie - I wanted to see that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon admitted after Friday's game. "Miggy did a great job with him. They were outstanding together."

The proof is in the numbers, too.

With Contreras over those five starts, Arrieta has posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, averaging 6.4 innings per outing.

In the last six starts with Montero behind the plate, Arrieta has a 1.99 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and is averaging 6.78 innings per outing.

Of course, Montero was also Arrieta's primary catcher for the pitcher's other-worldly run to close out last season.

Maddon believes there's a comfort level there between the two and with the Cubs essentially just biding time until the postseason, now was the time to make a change and see how they worked together again instead of worrying about getting Contreras more experience.

If Arrieta can find consistency pitching at that level, it absolutely gives the Cubs a new look alongside 2016 Cy Young contenders Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.

"We work well together," Arrieta said. "I work well with Willson and with Rossy, but Miggy and I have worked together for quite a bit of time now throughout the last couple years. He knows the way my stuff works. 

"He has little nuances, little mannerisms that he makes behind the plate that can help me get back on track from time to time and it's nice to have a guy like that who can really pick things out visually and relay a message to me by something small that helps me get back in line."

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Montero admitted he wasn't even focusing on his at-bats throughout Friday's game, instead putting his full attention on getting Arrieta back on track.

It may only be one outing, but it worked, and Montero deserves credit for getting Arrieta to settle down, stop trying to be too perfect and just unleash his ace stuff.

"We have to be a psychologist. That's our job as a catcher," Montero said. "People don't realize that. People think the catcher needs to throw and hit. No, we need to be a psychologist.

"We need to know who we got out on the mound, how to talk to him, how to go about the business, how to explain to him how to do things. I like psychology a lot and he's one of the guys who you need to push him a little bit harder, and that's me.

"I'm gonna push a guy to the limits, 'cause I know I can get a lot more from him. I know who I can get a lot more from."

Maddon didn't tip his hand about who will pair up with Arrieta next start, but the Cubs don't have to make that decision right now. 

However, with a veteran catcher like Montero around who knows how to call a game and has been heralded as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball during his prime, it'd be hard to leave him off the postseason roster.

In October, the Cubs will place a premium on guys who have been there before and can work in rhythm with a veteran-laden pitching staff and in those areas, Montero has a leg up on rookie Contreras.

Montero handled his reduction in playing time gracefully when Contreras was promoted to the big leagues over the summer, but now, the 33-year-old looks to be reemerging for the Cubs as the "big boy" games loom.

"I don't know if I'm gonna catch [Arrieta] again, but I hope he keeps that momentum going, which I think is a good confidence-builder right there," Montero said. "... My main goal [Friday] was just Jake and just to get him out there and get him to throw a good game and build his confidence again.

"I went 0-for-3, but I don't care. I accomplished my goal - which was to get him to throw a good game and he did."