Leading off, Castro only scratching the surface

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Leading off, Castro only scratching the surface

Sunday, April 3, 2011Posted: 3:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Starlin Castro glided to his left and leaned down to grab the bouncing ball. The shortstop spun and had one foot planted on the edge of the outfield, his momentum carrying him past second base.

Castro had trouble gripping the ball in the 41-degree cool of Wrigley Field. But he saw first base and made an accurate throw. Carlos Pena swiped it out of the air after one hop, just before the runner stepped on the bag.

The Cubs still have to account for more than 4,000 outs this season. But the first play on Opening Day a chopper up the middle reinforced everything the Cubs think about their 21-year-old shortstop.

For Castro, there will be many ups and downs across these 162 games. Sundays 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates was a microcosm, filled with moments that can be electrifying and easy to second-guess.

Initially, Mike Quade didnt want to overload Castro with leadoff responsibilities. It took two games before the manager changed his mind. From the top of Sundays lineup, Castro went 3-for-4 with two triples. He crushed one 400 feet off the top of the brick wall in center, and smashed the other up the third-base line.

Anywhere you put him, he looks good, Alfonso Soriano said, because hes got so much talent.

That makes it hard to rip Castro for the split-second decision he made with one out in Sundays ninth inning. The Cubs were clinging to a one-run lead and the Pirates had runners on second and third when Castro charged a soft groundball hit by Pedro Alvarez.

Castro didnt go home and he didnt hang onto it. His throw to first pulled Pena off the bag, allowing two runs to score. Quade reserved judgment on that play, saying that hed have to take another look.

The manager also admitted that he doesnt see leadoff as a regular thing for Castro, who will likely hit second on Monday. But its a clear sign of how much the shortstop has grown.

He acts like hes been here for years and I mean that in a good way, Pena said. Im talking about the way he goes about his at-bat, (how) he is so calm, regardless of the situation. (He) takes his pitches and when he gets a good (one) he takes an aggressive swing with an incredible confidence.

Yet Im also impressed with the fact that he doesnt seem to know how good he is. (I) like that humility in him, (how) hes working out there every day. Hes here early. He respects everyone (and) he respects the game, (yet) we all know the potential this kid has.

The Cubs are trying to find the balance in Castros rookie season a .300 average weighed against 27 errors. They want him to slow the game down, to know how fast the runner is and realize how much time he has on each play.

Quade benched Castro for a few games last September. The manager also met with the shortstop about his practice habits in early March. Castro hasnt tuned out his coaches, or backed down from the challenge.

Once again, were talking about a 21-year-old kid, Quade said. I cant lose sight of that fact. Instead of me getting irritated all the time, I probably ought to recognize that hes still a very young player.

Castros birth certificate shouldnt be an excuse for mental lapses, but it is good for an occasional reminder. While his game matures, his English has improved to the point where hes doing some interviews without an interpreter at his side.

You also noticed Castro sitting in a laundry cart on Sunday morning in the clubhouse, chatting with Soriano and Marcos Mateo. He didnt exactly feel out of place last year, but now he knows he belongs.

I feel really comfortable because they look at me as a player, not a rookie, Castro said. (I get) a little more respect.

The Cubs are stuck with players getting paid for past performance and not necessarily future results. That doesnt make them unique. Thats how compensation works in professional sports.

But for the Cubs to contend, they will need players to exceed expectations. A huge year from Castro could change their offensive profile. Maybe this is foreshadowing he went 8-for-13 (.615) and scored four runs in the opening series.

You can wonder whether Castro will hit first or second, but thats probably missing the point. He has the potential to be a No. 3 hitter, an anchor in the lineup, almost everything out of the marketing departments dreams.

The skys the limit, Pena said. We may be seeing one of the best up-and-coming shortstops in the game. Im just happy to have a good seat to watch him play.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

The Cubs gave Kyle Schwarber time to sort things out by sending him down to Triple-A Iowa, and Schwarber's first game back in the minors shows he may need some time.

Schwarber's first game with the Iowa Cubs was a forgettable one. He struck out in his first three plate appearances before singling in his last at-bat. He struck out looking in the first inning before striking out swinging his next two times up.

Schwarber batted third in the lineup and played left field. Iowa won 1-0 against the New Orleans Baby Cakes.

He last played for Iowa in 2015, but only spent 17 games there. He hit .333 with three homers and a 1.036 OPS in that short stint. Before getting sent down Schwarber was hitting .171 with the Cubs with 12 home runs, but also 75 strikeouts in 64 games.

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

WASHINGTON – The Cubs already visited the White House. The Washington Nationals are still the team with so much more to prove.

Dusty Baker needs this October to cement his spot in Cooperstown, the way Joe Maddon put the final bullet point on his Hall of Fame resume. Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant took different routes out of Las Vegas, but only one has the World Series ring to go with the Rookie of the Year/MVP hardware. While the clock is ticking on Max Scherzer and that championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Jon Lester megadeal essentially paid for itself.

Cubs vs. Nationals is supposed to be a circle-your-calendar event. Except the Cubs rolled out a Cactus League lineup on Monday night and Nationals Park featured rows and rows of empty seats amid a crowd of 29,651 where the celebrity vibe became more George Will than A-Rod and J-Lo.

The Cubs still hung on for a 5-4 victory that might have been their best under-the-circumstances win in a season that will hit the halfway point this weekend, showing why they’re the defending champs.

“It is exciting – don’t get me wrong,” Maddon said. “It’s just that we’re attending with a different group than we thought we would be attending this party with.

“And that’s OK, because these guys now are getting the kind of experience that is going to be very beneficial to us in August and September.”

A rash of injuries forced the Cubs to start Jeimer Candelario at third base and Mark Zagunis in right field and Javier Baez kept making highlight-reel plays while Addison Russell rested his sore right shoulder, leaping to grab to a Harper line drive and racing across the left-field line and sliding into the wall to make another spectacular catch in foul territory.

“Games like this is what we need right now – competition,” said Baez, who struck out in his first three at-bats and finished at 2-for-5. “Playing tight games like this will make us make adjustments better and be more in the game.”

With Kyle Schwarber more than 1,000 miles away in Des Moines and hitting the reset button at Triple-A Iowa, Willson Contreras became the leadoff hitter of the day and launched Gio Gonzalez’s fifth pitch of the game into the left-field seats.

The young Cubs manufactured their next run in the eighth inning when Baez stole third base and scored on Albert Almora Jr.’s perfectly placed bunt into the no man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and the first-base line. The bullpen is Washington’s Achilles’ heel and showed with a three-run meltdown in the ninth inning.

Eddie Butler – who began the season in the Iowa rotation – neutralized a powerful Washington lineup while getting just one strikeout in five innings. Maddon pushed a lot of bullpen buttons, not going to Wade Davis for a four-out save and then summoning the All-Star closer when Hector Rondon couldn’t work with a five-run cushion.

In a dramatic finish, Davis survived giving up three hits, a walk and a wild pitch, striking out Ryan Zimmerman with a curveball to end a game that lasted 3 hours and 54 minutes.

“To play so well and not win that game would have really been awful,” Maddon said.

The Cubs needed this with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg looming the next two nights. But for all of their talent and regular-season dominance – three division titles since 2012 and close to a 100-win pace this year – the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series in a city where the Senators once won it all in 1924.

This could be an epic matchup in October, bursting with stars and pumping with bad blood. Just listen to Baker during his pregame media briefing, responding to a question about a power hitter like Anthony Rizzo batting leadoff: “I ain’t worried about the Cubs. They can do their thing.”

Or Baker dismissing Maddon’s mind games and the possibility of intentionally walking Harper when Ryan Zimmerman is a Triple Crown contender: “It’s a new time and a new day.”

The last word from Maddon, who keeps insisting the 39-37 Cubs have a hot streak in them and that he digs the youth movement: “If this was a spring training lineup, we might get a call.”