Rizzo, Vitters have something to prove with Cubs

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Rizzo, Vitters have something to prove with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Anthony Rizzo and Josh Vitters were born 19 days apart in August of 1989, one in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the other in Anaheim, Calif.

The Cubs have put Rizzo front and center as they build for the future, while no one seems to be quite sure what to make of Vitters. As teenagers, they were teammates on the ABD Bulldogs at select national tournaments.

That they could go to high schools more than 2,600 miles away from each other and wind up playing on the same travel team speaks to the baseball-industrial complex in this country.

Baseball America loved Vitters before the 2007 draft, rating him as the best pure hitter among high school players, but theres nowhere near as much buzz around him right now. Perceptions began to change once the Cubs made him the third overall pick.

Its a business, and Rizzo knows that after being traded from the Boston Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez deal. The San Diego Padres flipped Rizzo again over the winter. The new executives in power at Clark and Addison Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod were involved in both deals.

Its definitely comforting, but this is a game of numbers, Rizzo said. You have to produce, so you can never get too comfortable in any job. You guys (in the media) cant get too comfortable. Neither can we. (But) it definitely feels good knowing they believe in you.

The Cubs looked beyond Rizzos 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats last season with San Diego Hoyer admitted it was a mistake to rush the first baseman and project him as an anchor in their lineup and clubhouse (after beginning this year at Triple-A Iowa).

Vitters is a player inherited by Epsteins inner circle, and he wont be replacing Aramis Ramirez at third base. Thats where Vitters is most comfortable, but there have been questions about his defense.

The Cubs now have Ian Stewart under club control through the end of the 2014 season. Vitters played some right field in the Arizona Fall League and has taken some ground balls at first base during camp.

Vitters hit .283 with 14 homers and 81 RBIs in 129 games at Double-A Tennessee last year. With a new front office in place, a laid-back SoCal guy feels a sense of urgency.

Oh, yeah, absolutely, Id be lying if I said that I didnt, Vitters said. I feel like everybody really does to some extent. Yeah, I got something to prove. Me, Brett (Jackson), Rizzo, (Matt) Szczur all of us are out here just trying to work hard and show these new guys what were made of and that we can actually handle the big-league level.

People around the Cubs say Vitters has matured, and have reminded you that the 22-year-old would be the next big thing if he had gone somewhere like UCLA instead of turning pro right out of high school.

Vitters who spent almost his entire offseason around the Cubs complex in Arizona is patient with the same questions that follow him everywhere. He doesnt have to believe the hype.

At this point, its just a matter of making the team or not, Vitters said. I feel like the prospect lists are cool for the fans. Thats what theyre for the fans. Theyre not really for any other purpose. Its just about us young guys coming out here, getting a good opportunity and trying to capitalize.

Newer is always better for those lists. Whoevers the new, hot prospect (gets to) the top. It could be true. It may not be true. But its just whoevers hot at the time.

Rizz as Vitters calls him is the guy now. Almost eight weeks ago, they were together at Major League Baseballs rookie development program near Washington, D.C. Now theyll be trying to race to the top together.

The day before he got traded, Vitters recalled, I was telling him how cool it would be if he got traded to the Cubs. And (then) it actually happened. Its awesome.

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Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

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Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”