Cubs put Starlin Castro on notice: Get your head in the game

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Cubs put Starlin Castro on notice: Get your head in the game

SAN FRANCISCO Theres no guarantee that this would have been a double play, but youll never know, because Starlin Castro didnt throw the ball to first base.

That mental mistake will bring those questions about the 22-year-old All-Star shortstop bubbling back up to the surface.

Its the last straw, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said after Mondays 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants. If he wants to play, he better start getting his head in the game. Period.

With the bases loaded at AT&T Park, Jeff Samardzija induced a groundball to second baseman Darwin Barney, who flipped it to Castro. That game-changing moment confirmed some of the worst fears inside the organization.

Castro touched the bag, avoided Brandon Belts slide into second base and kept on gliding, seemingly unaware that there were now only two outs in the fifth inning. The Giants scored the game-tying run and finished off a four-game sweep that left the Cubs (18-36) with 11 consecutive losses on the road.

Its not acceptable, Sveum said. These things got to stop happening or were just going to stop playing. These are things that my son does in high school maybe.

Sveum said it was irrelevant whether or not Castro could have turned the double play.

Its very embarrassing, Castro said. These things cant happen. I apologize to my team and everybody, because that type of thing is not supposed to happen.

Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw doesn’t live up to expectations as Dodgers sweep Cubs

Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw doesn’t live up to expectations as Dodgers sweep Cubs

LOS ANGELES – In a Cubs season that has already gone off script – or at least not followed the dynasty-in-waiting narrative – it made perfect sense that a Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw matchup at Dodger Stadium would devolve into a slugfest and a bullpen battle.

Randy Newman’s voice – “I Love L.A.” – blasted from the sound system late Sunday afternoon as the Dodgers put the finishing touches on a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champs. The Cubs led for one half-inning during this entire weekend and will wake up in San Diego on Memorial Day as a 25-24 team.

This 9-4 blowout again showed that the Dodgers should be a force in October. Forget about the way forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts basically tried to MacGyver his way through last year’s National League Championship Series with three pitchers – Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill and star closer Kenley Jansen.

“That’s the big separator between what I saw last year and right now – how they’re pitching,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

It didn’t matter that Kershaw got knocked out in the middle of the fifth inning after Willson Contreras, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo launched home runs and the Cubs generated 11 hits off the three-time Cy Young Award winner.

Kershaw still outlasted Lester, who dropped his head, stared at the grass and walked off the mound with one out and two runners on in the fourth inning. The Cubs had earlier fallen into a 6-1 deficit after Lester gave up two three-run homers to Cody Bellinger and Kike Hernandez.

In back-to-back shutouts, the Dodgers (31-20) had already beaten a Cy Young Award winner dealing with questions about his velocity and looming free agency (Jake Arrieta) and a three-time World Series champion who’s 38 years old and now has a 5.18 ERA (John Lackey).

“It’s always tougher the second time, because everybody’s gunning for you,” said Ben Zobrist, who should be back in the lineup on Monday after missing two games with a sore left wrist. “Your expectations are even higher than they were before.

“But this team is definitely equal to the task. That’s not the problem as much as we just got to get back to the fundamentals and execution of the little details in the game. And everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

Joe Maddon has no choice but to ignore noise and put his faith in young Cubs lineup

Joe Maddon has no choice but to ignore noise and put his faith in young Cubs lineup

LOS ANGELES – Right around the time Theo Epstein was asked when the Cubs might consider sending Kyle Schwarber down to Triple-A Iowa, Ian Happ became the new shiny object for fans and the Chicago media.

In less than 200 at-bats, Schwarber went from World Series legend to dropping from the leadoff spot to being a platoon player to getting shipped away in a fantasy-baseball trade for pitching. 

Unless the Cubs moved Javier Baez, because Gold Glove-caliber middle infielders on a 25-homer, 90-RBI pace just fall from trees. Not to mention someone already proven on the biggest stages as a National League Championship Series co-MVP and World Baseball Classic star.

Even Happ is coming back down to earth as the league adjusts to him. Still, Cubs manager Joe Maddon has no choice but to block out the noise, trust all this young talent and believe in the players who delivered last October.    

“The best I can do is talk to the player himself, which I’ve done with ‘Schwarbs,’” Maddon said before Sunday’s game at Dodger Stadium, staying upbeat and in character after back-to-back shutouts. “That’s just the nature of the industry. That’s a part of it that makes it so much fun, too, for the fan, the fact that they can interact and throw out their conjecture like that. 

“Internally, it has nothing to do with how we react to anything. And you have to talk to the player, because he’s always feeling these outside sources pressing down on him. He really shouldn’t, but they’re human beings. 

“How do you prevent that from really infiltrating? It’s just conversation with the guys themselves. That’s about it. You ask the player to really not pay attention and listen to that. 

“But, again, with all the tablets and the different sources available to follow what’s going on, it’s almost inevitable they’re going to hear or read something. So you got to stay positive with them. And we have to have that conversation with them to maintain their confidence.”

The Sunday lineup constructed to face Clayton Kershaw featured eight position players between the ages of 22 and 27: Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Happ, Jason Heyward, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr.

A team built around offensive firepower woke up that morning ranked eighth and ninth in the NL in runs scored (231) and OPS (.736). A .222 batting average with runners in scoring position placed the Cubs 15th out of the NL’s 15 teams. “The best explanation I can offer is that we’re hitting young,” Maddon said. “You look at the end of last season and how well a lot of the guys that are struggling right now performed under those circumstances. I believe we’re going to come back and do that.

“In the meantime, they need our support. They need our conversations, so nobody’s left in the dark or wondering what everybody’s thinking about around here. They need openness. And if you get that, they’ll come back.” 

[MORE: The learning curve for Ian Happ]

The Cubs have bigger problems, like an inconsistent rotation that has kept this team hovering around .500 and prevented any real sense of momentum. This is still largely the same group of hitters that beat Johnny Cueto, outlasted Madison Bumgarner, eliminated Kershaw and wore down Corey Kluber during last year’s World Series run.

“They’ll get it together,” Maddon said. “We haven’t even come close to hitting that real offensive ‘go’ moment. We haven’t been there and we’re still paddling pretty well. That moment’s coming. 

“Whether it’s Happ making adjustments, Contreras making adjustments, Addison making adjustments, these guys were pretty good at the end of last season in some really difficult moments, so they’ll be back.”