Cubs lineup revolves around Starlin Castro

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Cubs lineup revolves around Starlin Castro

Thursday, April 21, 2011Posted: 7:42 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Starlin Castro slammed his helmet to the ground as he turned at first base.

With two outs and two runners on, Castro had just hammered Aaron Harangs first-pitch, 91 mph fastball. Castro watched Cameron Maybin diving to make the catch in center, sliding flat on his stomach onto the warning track at Wrigley Field.

Yes, it was a sign of frustration in Wednesdays 5-4 loss to the San Diego Padres. But that fifth-inning moment also showed you that Castro isnt just along for the ride or happy to be here.

Castros senses hadnt been dulled by Game 2 of a double header. This was his first time in the No. 3 spot and he would finish the night batting .375, which ranked fourth in the National League. Theres no doubt that his reflex is to want more.

Hes going to (be) exceptional, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. Castros a good enough offensive player that down the road he can hit anywhere in the lineup.

Thats exactly where all this is heading. About a month after his 21st birthday, and less than two years removed from Class-A ball, Castro already has nine multi-hit games this season and a real understanding of what he wants out of each at-bat.

The 9-9 Cubs have scored more than five runs only four times so far this season. Part of that can be rationalized by playing in Chicago in April. But deep down they know that theyll be playing many low-scoring, one-run games across the next five-plus months.

The Cubs entered Thursdays off-day at second in the NL in average (.277); sixth in on-base percentage (.331); and tied for eighth in runs scored (74) and homers (14). But they ranked near the bottom of the league in hitting with runners in scoring position (.222).

To maximize Castros value, there will be calls to make Castro the permanent No. 3 hitter.

Lou Piniella grew tired of the daily lineup questions, but manager Mike Quade plays along. Even Quades brother recently asked him if the Cubs will settle on one grouping.

The whole lineup thing is evolving, Quade said. I dont see anything being set. Left-handers versus right-handers were a different club. The one-two-three hole could be musical chairs given who I have in the lineup that particular day.

Marlon Byrd has been batting third and its likely that Quade will continue to give him at-bats there. Byrds hitting .267 and has gone 4-for-22 with runners in scoring position, though his average was at .391 just last week.

Now that Kosuke Fukudomes hamstring has healed and because hes getting on base 50 percent of the time he remains a viable leadoff option. So is Jeff Baker against left-handed pitching. The prototypical leadoff hitter is baseballs endangered species.

The person that everybody wants to keep hammering about doesnt exist too often, Hendry said. You just do the best you can. Mikes done a good job with mixing and matching and certainly the guys in the middle of the infield have done extremely well.

In spring training Quade said that he didnt want to overload his young shortstop with leadoff responsibilities, but that didnt last beyond the seasons first weekend.

Castro has gone 19-for-41 (.463) at the top of the order. Second baseman Darwin Barney has emerged as an ideal No. 2 hitter because of his instincts and ability to handle the bat.

Barneys hitting .317 (13-for-41) with five runs, four walks, three doubles, one triple and five RBI in his last 10 games.

Were just trying to see pitches (and) feed off each other, Barney said. I try to move (Castro) around. Hes on base every time. (Lets) see if we can make things happen.

These are only snapshots. Alfonso Soriano leads the team in homers (six) and RBI (14). He feels his knees are strong again and credits his nonstop work with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.

My mind is so clear now, Soriano said. I know what I want to do.

Aramis Ramirez hasnt hit for power yet, but hes healthy, motivated and seeing the ball well (.403 on-base percentage). Tyler Colvin (.136 average) has been pressing, and Carlos Pena is still waiting for his first home run in a Cubs uniform.

Hendry promises that the veterans will get better because their baseball card will tell you they will.

Thats wide open for Castro. The Cubs cant wait to watch their homegrown shortstop pile up numbers across the next decade.

Soon enough everyone will forget about the lineup questions and start wondering which pieces the Cubs need to build around Castro.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

PITTSBURGH — We interrupt your regularly scheduled coverage of The Plan and that wacky, fun-loving Cubs team to bring you a snapshot of clubhouse frustration.

Jake Arrieta sounded defensive while talking to reporters after Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, standing in front of his locker and second-guessing manager Joe Maddon. On the other side of the room, veteran catcher Miguel Montero questioned the way the Cubs are preparing for the playoffs with Cactus League scripts.

The postgame questions started with Arrieta’s first-inning issues with umpire Chris Guccione’s strike zone. When reporters mentioned Maddon’s positive spin on a seven-run outing, Arrieta dismissed those happy-talk answers about his stuff — “it just wasn’t crisp” — and then wondered why he went from throwing to Montero to rookie Willson Contreras.

“The feeling of the game, from the first pitch, just wasn’t there,” Arrieta said. “Switching catchers just felt like we were trying to do a little too much instead of win a ballgame. But I didn’t throw well, no way around it.”

Montero went with a similar passive-aggressive tone, riffing on how the Cubs will maintain their edge almost two weeks after clinching the National League Central title and nine days before their first playoff game at Wrigley Field.

“Did it feel like spring training?” Montero said. “I do believe that. And that’s not a good feeling for a pitcher, for a player, to go into a game knowing that you’re going to play just four innings or five innings or whatever it is.

“This game is still important for all the players. It’s still important for every single guy. I don’t want to go out there not caring about winning or losing. That’s not my mentality. My mentality is going out there because I want to win, regardless.

“We have to trick our mind. Because if that’s how we’re going to go the rest of the way, I guess we need to trick ourselves.”

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Unprompted, Montero brought up the Pirates scoring three runs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night before the Cubs hung on for a 6-4 victory — without using Aroldis Chapman — as Maddon tries to keep the bullpen fresh for the playoffs.

“We didn’t have our closer warming up,” Montero said. “That’s something I take personally because I’m catching and I want to win.

“It’s hard. I understand (Joe’s) point. And I understand the organization’s point. I respect it. I can only control what I can control. It is what it is.”

OK then, the Cubs are still a 101-win team and the NL’s No. 1 seed. But this became a sharp contrast to all the backslapping after the pregame announcement of Theo Epstein’s monster contract extension. And Arrieta didn’t look like a reigning Cy Young Award winner, giving up 10 hits while John Jaso — who does look like a Pirate — lined a curveball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer in the fourth inning and hit for the cycle.

“We’re moving on,” Arrieta said. “We’ll prepare for the next one. I don’t like giving up seven runs. I’m pissed about that. But moving forward, everything’s fine.”

With Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks lined up at the front of the playoff rotation, Arrieta’s next start is almost two weeks away.

“It doesn’t matter,” Arrieta said. “I’ll throw sides. I’ll prepare. And whoever I face first round — they’re going to be in trouble.”

After burning through 103 pitches in five innings, Arrieta’s regular-season odometer is now at 197 1/3 innings, but he has zero interest in a gimmick that would get him to 200 this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

“Listen, I want to pitch on a schedule,” Arrieta said. “I don’t want to throw an inning in a game. I’m not trying to do anything different. Let’s just prepare like we normally do and go out and try to win games. I’m not trying to throw a bullpen in a game.”

Look, if this isn’t trouble in paradise, then it’s obvious that the Cubs are a hyper-competitive group that knows what’s at stake in October and has some independent thinkers and strong personalities. And that Arrieta’s unreal 2015 season created impossible standards for this year that couldn’t be met with an 18-8 record and a 3.10 ERA, the type of numbers that still get pitchers $200 million contracts.

“I don’t think you know how hard this game is unless you play it,” Arrieta said. “I feel I can have another season like that. People have done it before. Why can’t I do it? I can do it again. So, yeah, I appreciate it. But at the same time, that’s what you strive for. That’s why you work hard. You go out and you try to perform that way.”