Cubs still waiting on consistency from Castro, Rizzo

Cubs still waiting on consistency from Castro, Rizzo
July 5, 2013, 7:30 pm
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Tony Andracki

Starlin Castro's eighth inning Friday may have been a microcosm of his entire 2013 season.

After a rough day at the plate that included two strikeouts and a hard lineout to short, the Cubs dynamic shortstop finally broke through for a two-out double off Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano.

But four pitches later, he was caught too far off second base and Pirates catcher Russell Martin picked him off to end the inning.

"He has to be more aware of the situation," manager Dale Sveum said. "You're down by four, you have nowhere to go.

"Those kinds of plays stand out. That's one thing about baseball. It's not like basketball where you turn balls over and nobody really knows who did it. In baseball, every mistake stands out."

[RELATED -- All-Star dilemma for Cubs: Wood, Castro running opposite ways]

Twitter exploded again after Castro's baserunning gaffe, with fans throwing out crazy questions, wondering if the 23-year-old shortstop needs a change of scenery or if he's tuning out Sveum and the Cubs coaching staff. For his part, Castro stood at his locker after the game, inviting reporters' questions and owning his mistake.

"That's not a smart play," he said. "I feel really, really bad. That can't happen. Down by four, eighth inning, that run is not important. I was trying to be aggressive, but that can't happen."

This was supposed to be the season Castro and Anthony Rizzo took the reins of the Cubs franchise and ran with them.

That's part of the reason the Cubs locked both players up through their prime years with long-term contracts coming within nine months of each other.

Instead, it's been a trying season for the young building blocks, as they've each endured extended slumps at the plate.

The Cubs have already started their summer sell-off and appear to be headed to another 90-100-loss season. In a big market with a century-long championship drought, the fans want something to believe in. Castro and Rizzo were supposed to be those bright spots.

"I don't know if [all the player development talk] dominates things or not, but it's still a process," Sveum said prior to Friday's game. "They're still developing as major-league players.

"This is Castro's fourth year now, but he's still developing as a major-league player and a winning player, as well as Rizzo. A winning hitter, hitting with men in scoring position and all those kinds of things, [they're] still developing."

Sveum balked at the idea that part of Castro's and Rizzo's problems is related to where they hit in the Cubs lineup.

"That lineup thing, I don't really believe in it," Sveum said. "Once you step in that box, you don't know if you're hitting first, second, third or fifth.

"It shouldn't have any bearing on what you do. If it does, then you got to work on that part of it. When you step in your box, you're worried about hitting, not worried about where you're hitting in the lineup."

[MORE: Going into sell mode, Cubs kick off trade season]

To start the season, the two youngsters were slotted in as the second and third hitters in the lineup.

After a particularly rough stretch earlier this season, Castro was bumped down to the seventh spot in the lineup, but has since returned to his regular two-hole. He may be finding his stroke again, as he just missed his fifth multi-hit game in the last nine contests Friday.

"I want to stay aggresive at the plate," Castro said. "I don't put any extra pressure on myself and I just go out and play baseball. But I can be better than [Friday's game]."

Friday, Rizzo hit sixth against the left-handed Liriano, the lowest he's hit in the Cubs order this season. He finished the game 0-for-3 with a walk and is hitless in his last 13 at-bats.

"There have been plenty of teams who have worked their lineup according to who's hot or whatever," Sveum said. "Like I said, in the perfect world, all of this is great. But the fact of the matter is when you step in the batter's box, you're a hitter. You're not a third hitter, you're not a fourth hitter, you're just a hitter."

The Cubs offense has not had an easy time pushing across runs this year, casting the spotlight on the struggles of Castro and Rizzo. But Castro has more than 600 hits to his name and Rizzo is on pace for 23 homers and 93 RBI. Even if they're both hitting under .250, there is still almost half a season to turn things around.

With the potential veteran everyday players Alfonso Soriano, Nate Schierholtz or David DeJesus (if he can return from a shoulder injury with enough time) or minor pieces such as Cody Ransom, Scott Hairston or Dioner Navarro are dealt before the trade deadline, the focus will continue to be on Castro and Rizzo in the final three months of the season.

[RELATED -- Shopping Soriano: Will Cubs veteran be dealt?]

The honeymoon period for the front office -- and subsequently, the manager (Sveum) and franchise cornerstones (Castro, Rizzo) -- is over, and Cubs fans are anxious for results.

Across the diamond, the Pirates boast the best record in Major League Baseball after two decades of losing, proving turn-arounds can be just around the corner.

"You understand that some of these teams -- like the Nationals -- went through some really tough times and obviously had a great team last year," Sveum said. "They still have a nice team, but we all know it's not that easy to win when you have a nice team.

"It comes down to knowing how quick it can happen, too. Put a few pieces together and guys have career years."